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His Parents
18. 1.1858

From the Stella Mattutina in Khartoum,

18 January 1858

Dearest Parents!
Here I am on board the boat in the act of abandoning Khartoum and setting out for the central tribes of Bahar-el-Abiad. This vessel, in the form of a Dhow, is the largest and strongest in Sudan. She belongs to the Khartoum Mission which gave her the Italian name of Stella Mattutina, almost as if to dedicate her to the Blessed Virgin so that she might truly be a morning star of light for the poor black people who are still shrouded in the darkness of ignorance and idolatry.
We are all keen and anxious to reach the longed-for goal of our lengthy and arduous pilgrimage. We trust in the Lord that we shall succeed in making a good start, despite the formidable problems of which we already have an inkling. The Khartoum Mission which is divided into three mission posts was founded ten years ago. Twenty-four Missionaries have worked there; several million francs have been spent and a great deal has been done to acquire the advantage of being respected by the Turks and the neighbouring black tribes in order to preach the Gospel freely. Until now only about 120 souls have been won, and they are nearly all children. In order to maintain their faith the Mission is forced to keep them in food, clothing and lodgings. The Mission is obliged to face incredible difficulties and hardships.
However, our hope is perhaps all the greater the poorer we are, therefore the less we need: until now, as far as we can tell, we find it is far more formidable than people in Europe think. Nevertheless our trust in God is constantly growing within us and he alone […] will be able to prepare them to receive the beneficial influence of divine grace.
In the meantime, do not worry about us. God is with us; Mary the Virgin Immaculate is with us; St Francis Xavier is our Patron, and confiding in these steadfast supports we are able to overcome […] death, and the harshest suffering and discomfort. Supported by these precious bulwarks of God, the Blessed Virgin and St Francis Xavier, we are safer than if we were to present ourselves to the tribes of Central Africa with an army of 100,000 French soldiers. So do not fear for us, do not be at all worried about what will happen to us.
It is enough that you pray for us and that our hearts are ever united, with God as our focus, always. In the next few months it is bound to happen that you do not hear from me. But be happy all the same! I have already told you that in a month and a half I will write to you, when the Stella Mattutina returns. However, do not hesitate to send me your news twice a month, that is, whenever the steamer from Trieste leaves for Alexandria, do not fail to write to me. Although I will in any case receive your letters in batches of five or six at a time, I still long for news of you and family things in detail, and therefore I would like regular information every fortnight, to be able to judge more correctly how you and how everything to do with you is going. So do not fail to write to me every fortnight, addressing the letters, which have all reached me so far, as I have explained.
Until now, I have been luckier than all my companions in receiving letters from Europe, either because the correspondents of my companions wrote little, or because the letters went astray. This morning we visited the Patriarch of Abyssinia who is like the Pope for the heretical Copts. He acts as the Emperor of Abyssinia’s ambassador to the King of Egypt. He was surrounded by an assistant Prelate and a military general, and escorted by Egyptian guards. He was sprawling magnificently on rich carpets of the finest damask and silk; and he gave us a grand welcome. He is the Copts’ Pope, and when they die he receives a quarter of their wealth, so he is one of the richest men in existence. He presented to us the Schibuck, and cinnamon tea. We discussed our Mission. We explained to him that we risked our lives to penetrate the country. So why do you do it? he asked us. To save them and their souls, we replied, because our Lord Jesus Christ gave up his life for us too. Ah, I see, he answered. Then one of the Khartoum Missionaries spoke to him about Jesus Christ, and that if it were to please God, all men will bow their heads before the Cross and all will worship Jesus Christ. Yes, we hope so, he replied and, changing subjects, spoke of the Emperor of Abyssinia.
Today he came to visit us on board the Stella Mattutina and was astonished to see the attention with which we professed our religion, for he saw the chapel on the boat where we celebrate Mass every morning. Finally he left impressed, telling us that he would always remember that day which was most propitious for him. He was splendidly dressed; and becoming a Catholic was the last thing he had in mind. It occurred tome to persuade him to go to Rome where he would see great things. Enough; be happy, my dear parents. I am leaving, and although I have other things to tell you I do not have time to write any more, because the Stella Mattutina is about to weigh anchor from Khartoum.
So we are leaving bright and cheerful, although we must get used to the idea that we shall have to work very hard without seeing many results; that is, we will do great things if we can prepare and dispose those souls, leaving others to pick the fruits. God is great; and in him we place all our trust. Always be with God and remember always to do everything for his greater glory and for nothing else.
Goodbye, my dear parents. I will always be thinking of you, and you must think of making every sacrifice for God. A holy Missionary of Khartoum, who is now here on our boat, was telling me the other day that although he had left his father and a rich family where he had every comfort, although he had worked so hard on his Mission, he said he would be happy if God were to send him to Purgatory, because he said he was such a sinner that he feared hell, since until now he had not suffered anything that was worthy of Heaven.
You see how necessary it is to suffer for Heaven: be of good cheer, dear parents, you whose destiny it is to suffer immensely for Christ. This is why you are certain to go there. I embrace you warmly with all my heart. Remember me to all our relatives and friends, etc., and in the expectation of your letters, I kiss you a hundred times, and bless you, professing myself to be your loving son,

Fr Daniel

His father
Kich tribe
5. 3.1858
N. 32 (30) – TO HIS FATHER

From the Kich tribe, 5 March 1858

Dearest Father!
How relieved I was to receive your dear letters of 21st November 1857, you cannot imagine! Blessed be the Lord and his adorable Providence which in its own time can console even his wickedest servants, although they are wretched sinners! If you would really like to know, I left Khartoum with a sharp pain in my heart since mother was acutely ill; and by divine disposition this heartache continued to afflict me so that at every step it seemed to me I was at her deathbed, although I knew in my heart of hearts that she would not fly to eternal repose, but of course that she would be bound to recover.
What was most unusual, your dearest letter together with a very long one from mother which of course I was not expecting, arrived on a Nubian boat. Thank God, they soothed my aching heart and filled my soul with sweet joy. Obeloved parents! How precious are the letters, the words, the news of distant parents! You will realise this as much as I do.
The Missionary must be prepared for everything: for joy and sadness, for life and death, for embrace and abandonment, and I am ready for it all.
But God wanted to give me the cross of feeling unusually anguished for you and my mother; and God also wanted me to rejoice at her present, somewhat improved state of health. I am with you both at every moment. And I feel in my heart the burden you feel because of our physical separation. How often do I accompany your trips to Supino, to Tesolo, to Riva in your daily rounds, and at night, with mother! And when I leave off thinking of God, I feel oppressed and am forced to fly to heaven with my ideas and to reflect that you have a more sublime, steadfast and infallible support than I can give you: that is, God’s protection sustains you better than mine.
I turn to God every day and every hour, and I commend both of you to him. He comforts me, for I am assured that the Lord and our dear Mother Mary Immaculate have taken special care of you. Nor does it matter if from time to time disagreements, disputes or unpleasantness arise between you. God plays with these in men’s sight, and shows us that if we abandon ourselves to our own will we are victims of our human weaknesses. But in the end, you and your troubles (which are mine too) are looked after by heaven with special solicitude. And you are both the object of the angels’ and God’s most tender delight.
Let the world prattle away; let it say that two poor parents are unhappy because they are childless, but in heaven things are taken differently, up there it is written in very different characters. The doctrine of Jesus Christ, the Gospel, is indeed opposed to the world’s chatter. The world proclaims happiness, delight and satisfaction. The Gospel suggests anguish, wretchedness and sorrow; the world thinks only of the moment and of this mortal life, of the body; the Gospel turns its gaze to eternity, to future life, to the soul. It is all too obvious that the Gospel and the soul have ideas which are different indeed from those of the world and the physical senses: let us therefore be calm and happy, courageous and generous, for Jesus Christ.
I am a martyr for love of the most neglected souls in the world, and you have become martyrs for love of God, sacrificing an only son for their good. But be brave, my dearest parents: God can make me die immediately like 15 other Missionaries of the Khartoum Mission, one of whom expired in the Lord’s embrace a few days before we arrived. God can make you die; everything is in his hands. But he can also make me and you live, keeping in store for us the joy of once more embracing and enjoying blessed gladness for several months or even years, in blessed company within the confines of our beautiful Italy.
Our Superior is bombarding us with letters and wants one of us to return immediately with young black boys and girls and to continue to do this every year; and we are obliged to do so although this year it is going to be impossible, for at the moment we cannot make a selective or good choice of the natives of this tribe where we are going. But this coming year one of us will certainly return to Europe with an expedition; and one year or another it will be my turn if I am still alive. Let us therefore put ourselves with wholehearted generosity under the beneficent wings of divine Providence, because he will arrange every thing far better than we can.
I find the immense distance separating us is not yet enough to make me forget our homeland and familiar customs in the slightest. I frequently spend half a day among these people, without in the least feeling far from home and from you. I need to think about it, to realise that I am in the midst of Africa in unknown lands.
When I advance, the Crucifix on my breast, among a crowd of naked natives surrounding me, armed with spears and bows and arrows and I say some words of J.C’s faith to them, seeing myself alone or with one other in the midst of this fierce people who could fling me dead to the ground with a single blow of the spear, then I realise I am not in Europe, with you. Nevertheless you are also before my eyes, and it seems to me that you are prostrate before God, imploring him to make our words effective.
You see then that our hearts are ever united, although our bodies are separated by so many thousands of miles: indeed for my part, I need to reflect a little on it to know that I really am far from you. Blessed be the Lord who soothes every wound with the balm of his comfort. It might not be disagreeable to you to hear something about our dangerous journey among the tribes of Central Africa after Khartoum. I would like to satisfy you with the full story, but it is impossible for me to describe everything that happened and all that we observed. I really do not have the time or opportunity to do so, because I am prevented by serious tasks and other hindrances which are part and parcel of the Missionary’s life.
If it were a matter of sitting at a desk and having the proper comforts as you can, I would make you see things by writing a volume on my journey from Khartoum to the tribe of the Kich from where I write. However, since in order to write a few lines I have to settle beneath a tree, or in a dark hut lying Arab-style on the ground, or kneeling next to my trunk, to tell you the truth, after I have written for half an hour my back and bones ache and I need to walk, to give my spirit some relief.
So you must be satisfied with just a short account; and others to whom I write, in Verona or elsewhere, will have to make do with a greeting. The distance separating Khartoum from the Kich is only a little more than a thousand and a few hundred miles or so, but the accidents that happen on that terrible and dangerous journey are innumerable.
Besides, before coming to the description of our journey on the White Nile, I must first tell you that the Nile, on which we travelled to Khartoum, is formed by two great rivers, known by the Arabs as the Bahar-el-Azrek or Blue River, and Bahar-el-Abiad, or White River. They converge at Ondurman, near Khartoum, forming the Nile proper. After running through Nubia and Egypt for several thousand miles, it flows out into the Mediterranean Sea not far from Alexandria.
The source of the Blue Nile has been known since antiquity and is located at the Lake of Dembea in Abyssinia near Gondar. Fr Beltrame travelled on this Blue Nile to the 10th parallel in order to find a suitable spot for the Mission according to our Superior’s plan; but not finding this river appropriate for many justifiable reasons, after mature reflection and on the recommendation of our Superior in Verona we were determined to attempt to approach other more suitable tribes on the White River.
Although the Nile has been classified by geographers as the fourth river in the world, nonetheless it is now certain that it is the longest, because geographers calculated that the Nile was a continuation of the Blue Nile, known as we said since antiquity, whereas the White Nile, more than thousand miles longer than the Blue Nile, ought to be considered the father of the Nile. Therefore, calculating only the river on which we have travelled until now, the Nile is more than 400 miles longer than the longest river in the world.
Add to the stretch we have covered the fact that the source of the White Nile, or Bahar-el-Abiad, is as yet unknown and it will be clear to you that the Nile is the longest river in the world by hundreds of miles. I should also tell you in advance that the White Nile has been navigated by several others, in particular our deceased confrere, Fr Angelo Vinco from our own Institute, so its banks are somehow familiar. But no one has penetrated far into the hinterland so that although the names of the tribes of the innermost part of Central Africa (those of the White River) are well known, nothing is known of their customs, temperament, etc.
To help you to understand this, suppose that the Kingdom of Lombardy and the Veneto were unknown, and that we were trying to get to know it in order to preach the Gospel there. Suppose that Riva were Khartoum, from where we left to penetrate the Kingdom of Lombardy and Venice, and that the Lake of Garda were the White River. Suppose, in addition, that the Lake of Garda were navigated by someone as far as Gargnano and Castelletto, just as Vinco navigated the White Nile to a specific point. Now if you go from Riva to Gargnano and Castelletto, you know that Lombardy and the Veneto exist because the people of Gargnano will tell you that they are Lombards and those of Castelletto will say that they are Venetians, since Gargnano is part of Lombardy and Castelletto, part of the Veneto.
But even if you have been to Gargnano and Castelletto, could you actually say that you knew Lombardy and the Veneto? No, because in order to know these two kingdoms it is necessary to visit Milan and Venice, etc. On the other hand, from having gone only to Gargnano and Castelletto, you know that Lombardy and the Veneto exist. Now the banks of the Nile are inhabited by various tribes which extend into the hinterland. They are quite unknown although their names are familiar, for no one has been far inland; yet the names of these tribes are known since they extend as far as the river.
I am in the tribe of the Kich. However I know nothing or very little about it, because it extends far inland where no one has penetrated. Yet I am in the tribe of the Kich and know that it exists. Having said this, our goal is to begin to preach the Gospel in one of these vast tribes of the unknown regions of Central Africa. We shall start on the banks of the White Nile and gradually advance inland to the capital, and then reach other tribes as God pleases.
With this objective, we left Khartoum at dawn on 21st January after exchanging embraces with our beloved companion, Fr Alessandro Dalbosco, who stayed behind in this city as Procurator. There were four of us: Fr Giovanni Beltrame, who heads the Mission, Fr Franco Oliboni, Fr Angelo Melotto and I. We were to carry out a thorough exploration down the White Nile, in order to establish a Mission among the black tribes in accordance with the great plan of our Superior, Fr Nicola Mazza of Verona.
The vessel that bore us on this arduous and perilous voyage was the Stella Mattutina, owned by the Khartoum Mission. It was crewed by 14 able sailors, under a courageous and experienced Rais (captain), who had made the voyage before. We well knew by experience how skilled and expert he was in the complicated art of navigating on this great and never-ending river. After the terrible turbulence with the contrary current of the Blue Nile when we rounded the last point of Ondurman at the confluence of the two great rivers, Bahar-el-Abiad loomed ahead, unfolding before us in all its enchanting majesty and beauty. With a strong following wind we sped upstream on those troubled, tumultuous waters whose expanse, breadth and majesty made them seem, rather than a river, a lake flowing in ancient Eden.
The distant banks are picturesquely covered with a variety of greenery whose luxuriant growth at all times in every season of the year is caused by the hot sun and a perpetual springtime. Our Stella Mattutina seemed to smile on those quivering waves as she skimmed majestically through the great river at the speed with which our boats cut through our own Lake Garda although she was running against the current. The first tribe one encounters beyond Khartoum (which is located at the 16th degree Latitude North while Verona is between 45° and 46°) is the Hassanieh, spread over the left and right banks of the Bahar-el-Abiad and consisting of two black and Nubian races. Their inhabitants raise stock from which they obtain their chief nourishment.
The Hassanieh are always armed with spears, and like the Nubians here and there in the desert they always carry a sharp knife tied to their elbow for personal use and for self-defence. On the second day we stopped in this same tribe to buy two oxen, for ourselves and our crew. I can say nothing to you of this vast tribe save that they are a nomadic tribe whose vast families move about, according to where they find the most fertile land and easy grazing for their cattle. As far as we can see, this tribe extends between 16° and 14° Latitude North, and between 29° and 30° longitude, measured from the Paris meridian.
The villages and hamlets which are to be found in this tribe are somewhat distant from the river, some on the left, others on the right. They are called the Fahreh, Malakia, Abdallas, Ogar, Merkedareh, Tura, Waled Nail, Wascellay, Raham, Mokabey, Gùlam Ab, Husein Ab, Sheikh Mussah, Salahieh, Tebidab, Manjurah, Eleis, etc., etc., although for the nomadic tribes every stretch of land is a town, since they never stay put in the same place. Within the boundaries of this tribe the small hills of Jel Auly, Menderah, Mussa, Tura and Korum rise to adorn this sort of earthly paradise, after which, with the exception of the small Dinka mountains at the 12th degree, it is a perfect plain as far as the 7th.
Below 14° of latitude, two other small tribes extend: the Schamkàb on the left, and the Lawins on the right; but we know nothing about them other than that they are a very warlike people. Since they are close to the Hassanieh and the Baqqarah, their customs would be more or less similar. But here we are since 25th January in the vast tribe of the Baqqarah which extends between the 14th and 12th degrees latitude on the left, and on the right, from 13° to 12°, since the stretch from 13° to 14° on the right is inhabited by the nomadic tribe of the Abu-Rof, whose customs are virtually the same as those of the Hassanieh.
Right here we can see a change in the scenery of our long pilgrimage. Beyond the tribe of the Hassanieh, where the Baqqarah tribe begins, the towns and villages are starting to disappear and the last vestiges of the Arab-Nubian type are on the point of finally giving way to the formidable Negro race. If I were to venture to describe to you the spectacle which has kept us busy for many days along the banks of the White River flanked by the overbearing savages of the Baqqarah, I would be attempting the impossible. I think that even the greatest writer of our time would not be able to convey the beauty, majesty and delightful aspect of the virginal and uncontaminated nature where these enchanted gardens smile.
The low banks of the broad and stately river are invaded with vigorous vegetation that has never been touched or altered by human hand. On one side an immense and impenetrable undergrowth, never yet explored, formed by gigantic mimosas and green nébaks – trees of an extraordinary girth, height and age, since man has never interfered with them – growing densely together, form a boundless and variegated enchanted forest. It affords the safest hiding place for immense herds of gazelles, antelopes, tigers, lions, panthers, hyenas, giraffes, rhinos, and other jungle beasts accustomed to the infinite grasslands teeming with snakes of every kind and size. On the other side more undergrowth, dense with mimosas and tamarinds and ambaries, etc. appears, covered in verbena and a sort of thick and supple grass. This forms as it were, natural huts, where one would certainly be protected from the heaviest downpour.
From afar, hundreds of very pleasant fertile islands, large, small, lightly clad in enamel green, one more beautiful than the other, look like the loveliest of gardens. These hazy islands are shaded by a series of superb mimosas and acacias that barely let a single ray of the baking African sun penetrate. They form an archipelago more than 200 miles long which makes the most enchanting view. Infinite flocks of birds of every size, variety and colour; birds perfectly golden, others silver, etc., fly peacefully with no fear between the trees, among the grasses, on the banks, over the rigging of the boats. Black and white ibises, wild duck, pelicans, abusin, royal cranes, eagles of every kind, herons, parrots, marabous, abumarcub and other birds were flying about or strutting up and down the banks looking at the sky, so that they seemed as if they were blessing the beneficial Providence of God who created them.
Bands of monkeys scamper down to the river to drink and leap up and down through the trees, playing happily with the most ridiculous grimaces, typical of their race. Hundreds of antelopes and gazelles graze among this undergrowth in which they never hear the bang of a gun or experience the cunning art of hunters laying traps to kill them. Immense crocodiles bask on the little islands or on the banks. Huge hippos emerge snorting from the water, especially in the evening, filling the air with the most furious roars which, resounding in the forest, after first inspiring terror, awaken in the soul the most sublime idea of God.
How great and powerful is the Lord! Our boat advances, one could say, on the backs of the hippopotamuses. These are about four times the size of an ox and numerous, for there are hundreds of them and they could sink us in an instant. But God ensures that these very fierce animals flee before us. The dugouts and little boats of naked Africans armed with shields and spears could attack us in a country isolated from all; instead, as soon as they catch sight of us fearlessly advancing, they rush away, concealing themselves beneath the branches of those gigantic trees growing on the river banks and extending beyond them because of their enormous size.
Other men, having reached the banks, leave their craft and hide in the forest. Delighting our gaze in this way and blessing the Lord, we reach the Abu-Said-Mocadah passage, a place where the river is very wide and shallow and the boat runs aground. The sailors are all obliged to jump overboard and, dragging the boat with an unspeakable effort, manage to free her after several hours. It is very serious when a vessel is stranded.
More than hundred times we happened to find ourselves in places where the river was very wide, and only a foot deep. Then the sailors would slip into the river and, by pushing and shoving, drag the boat for several miles until the river became deeper and the boat, favoured by the wind, could sail on her own. Beyond Abu-Said, we see someone hidden between the trees on the bank, spear in hand, and furtively observing the Stella Mattutina; others realise that they have been seen by us and flee. In that instant, the vessel hits a rock, and we feel a sudden violent shock. All the circumstances seem to indicate that the hull is smashed: instead, the boat is sound, although she continues to leak more than usual for the rest of the voyage. The natives’ canoes are hidden among the tall reeds which cover some of the islands.
Among these islands those of Assal, Tauoat, Genna, Sial, Schebeska, Gubescha, Hassanieh, Dumme, Hassaniel Kebire, Mercada, Inselaba, and El Jiamus are outstanding for their beauty and size. The stretch we have covered so far runs along the boundaries of the appropriately named Baqqarah tribe. The Baqqarah, which in our language means cowherds, are so called because of their special preference for training horned animals, most of which are cows. Cows serve this tribe as pack animals or mounts serve us. They possess an infinite number of them, which accounts for the source of their wealth.
The Baqqarah are divided into various tribes, known in Central Africa by the name of Baqqarah Hawasma, Baqqarah Selem, Baqqarah Omur and Baqqarah Risekad; and I think that perhaps they are divided in this way because of the rebellion of the great rich cowherds, who, when the number of cows they possessed increased, went in quest of new grazing grounds, making themselves the heads of as many tribes. Since the Baqqarah are supremely rich in cattle they are constantly at war with the powerful tribe of the Shilluks, who come to steal their riches as I will tell later, and with the great tribe of Gebel Nuba to which the Moor Miniscalchi who is now in Verona belongs, whom you know. As to the Baqqarah’s government and region, I can tell you nothing. Only that this tribe, like that of the Hassanieh, for many justifiable reasons are not at the moment suited to our purpose.
Therefore we continue to push ahead and the men who have been watching us from afar soon run away. Herds of thousands of buffaloes, bulls and cows graze on the distant grasslands. The undergrowth on the right bank thickens while on the left it gets sparser. It was quite a sight to see a herd of cattle on an island, terrified by the passing of our ship and rushing into the water to reach the bank, the cowherds endeavouring in vain to prevent them with their spears. Thus they crossed the river astride the animals, so that it looked as if an army had suddenly been routed. Our Stella Mattutina is skimming through the waves when suddenly, close to the shallows of Mocàda-el-Kelb, the boat runs aground. It is midnight. To the right we can still see the fires of the natives, who are watching us leaning on their shields, spear in hand. These are the Dinka. On the left are moored 12 or 15 canoes, very like a rougher version of Venetian gondolas. Meanwhile their respective boatmen are with their wives and naked children in the nearby thicket, squatting by fires (these fires were made by setting light to the clumps of reeds that happen to be growing there).
We are between the Shilluks and the Dinkas. Some of the Shilluk crews stay close to their bank of the river staring with fear at our Stella Mattutina. Others, belonging to the Dinkas, pass our boat terrified and move off. We hail their captain. He hails us and flees. That night the attempts to remove our ship from the mud and sand are vain. Two boatmen keep guard to wake us should any armed native craft approach with hostile intentions. God protected us: no grim accident happened to us.
Our position is quite critical. We are in the middle of the White Nile with the Dinka on one side. Only last year they massacred some of the men on a boat belonging to a certain Latif of Khartoum and committed other barbarities; on the other side are the Shilluks, one of the most powerful and ferocious tribes of Central Africa who live as robbers and thieves.
We cannot move. We do indeed possess ten guns; but the Missionary lets himself be slain a hundred times rather than talk about defending himself and thereby seriously endangering the enemy. J.C. would not have done so. Demoralised, the captain of the vessel tells us that he is at a loss. Had those men wished, they could have destroyed us in less than ten minutes. Can you imagine how we discussed the matter?
Among the other things, after discussing every move over and over again, we said that if the Shilluks were to make an armed attack on us, with our invulnerable Crucifix at our breast we would yield everything to them, boat and all. They would certainly have taken us as slaves before the King of the Shilluks, perhaps to suffer death. But with God’s grace and the exercise of charity, and primarily, as doctors, we would have won that people’s affection so that without seeking any other place to toil in Christ’s vineyard we would have planted the Cross and founded our Mission here.
Such was our state; but we possessed a weapon powerful enough for us to fear nothing. In the Stella Mattutina, there is the loveliest of chapels, adorned with a most beautiful image of Mary. How could our good Mother to whom we have entrusted our Mission see us suffering and in grave difficulty without coming to our rescue? In the morning, Mass was celebrated. Oh, how sweet it was in those difficult circumstances to hold in one’s hand the Master of the rivers, the Lord of all the tribes of the earth, and to pray to him for us, for our needs, for those who are in peril with us, for you, for those who do not know him, for the whole world!
Yes, my dearest parents, our most consoling prayer in that difficult situation was for the Shilluks and the Dinkas, whose lands have never been brightened by a single spark of the light of the Gospel. If we had been taken at that point and dragged in chains before their haughty king, perhaps it would have been the salvation of that proud people. However, perhaps neither we nor even they deserved such a grace. In the morning our sailors clamber down into the river and for several hours with indescribable effort and exertion, endeavour to free the boat from the shallow bottom. But she will not budge: what was to be done at this point?…
We all agreed to call those men to help us. Shouting as loudly as we could, we gesture to them to come to us, almost as if to receive gifts. After an hour of shouting, clapping our hands, yelling and everything else, one canoe holding 12 Shilluks and a captain leaves the bank and moves towards us, armed with spears, bows and arrows and shields; while all the others on the bank prepare their weapons to come to the aid of the canoe that had left.
When they come aboard our Stella Mattutina, with words and shouts we show them that we want them to help us to free our ship. They make us understand that before doing so they want to return to the bank to negotiate with their chief to agree on the quantity of glass beads they want in return. This we will not allow. So they leap into the river to help our boatmen: all in vain. Then we made them understand that they should go and call others, and that afterwards we would pay them very, very well. No, they replied. What we want, they said, is your chiefs, (this is what they called us priests) as two or three hostages, and to take them with us and keep them until you have given us the glass beads.
While the captain disagreed and refused, we agreed who would go as hostage. All four of us wanted to go. At last, while each one of us was explaining the reasons why it would be appropriate for him to go, they left and in less than a quarter of an hour another three canoes bearing armed men like the others above arrived. They strove with all their might to move our boat. After much effort, the boat moved. Thrilled, we encouraged them, but when they saw that the boat had moved, they stopped and spear in hand, demanded the glass beads. We showed them the beads, but did not consider giving them to them immediately. However, as soon as they had their hands on them they made off and left us alone with our ship even more firmly embedded than before. As soon as they landed we saw a large gathering dividing the packet of glass beads. The whole of that day went by in this way. We were constantly observing our Shilluk friends and to tell you the truth, seeing those canoes going backwards and forwards, others appearing, and the Dinkas on the other side of the river departing (and we knew that the Dinkas are very afraid of the Shilluks, so that when there are a crowd of Shilluks on one side, the Dinkas flee on the other), made us wonder whether they would attempt to take possession of our boat and make a good mess of us.
When evening came and nightfall, we held a council on how to escape from the difficult situation. We made suggestions, we discussed, we prayed: but I have already told you that it is impossible ever to be afraid when you think that we had a powerful and loving Mother who was watching over us.
The Virgin Mary, the Missionary’s precious comfort, the Virgin who is the true Queen of Africa and Mother of Consolation could not abandon her four poor servants who were also trying make her known, as well as her divine Son, to those idolatrous people. She did come to our help suggesting how we could extricate ourselves from that embarrassing situation. At night the usual sentinels were keeping watch; and it was a great effort to refuse the boatmen guns. We had to, or there would have been a brawl and there would have been a fight between them, for our boatman are Mohammedans; and for them killing others is a virtue.
The night passed, and in the morning the plan we had decided upon is put into effect. The plan is this: to build a raft with the 16 oars from the boat (four times as big as those of our Garda ferries) where the river was deep, and to place 30 chests on the raft, those which are not damaged by getting wet, such as tools, bottles, hardware, etc. in order to lighten the boat, which would then float better in the water and be more easily pushed into deeper water by the boatmen. This was done, well and quickly. Loading the raft, pushing the ship and reloading it took about 10 hours; and the effort the boatmen had to make to transport it all was incredible beneath a sun of 38°C.
God blessed our plan. After 42 difficult hours stationary in those terrible shallows, favoured by a strong wind we continued our voyage, thanking divine Providence who that day had quieted the warlike character of the Shilluks, who never miss such opportunities to take plunder and booty. Rejoicing to have passed this danger, we made rapid but very careful progress. Every quarter of an hour the Stella Mattutina runs aground, and is freed with great efforts. She frequently hits rocks or sand-banks. Although she is the largest and strongest river-boat in Sudan because she is iron-plated, it is a wonder that she got us as far as here, to the Kich, without disintegrating.
The left and right banks are swarming with men armed with spears, shields, bows and arrows. The Shilluks are on the left, and, on the right, the Dinkas who hide among the bushes when they realise that the Shilluks are very numerous, and only appear when the left bank is less populated with Shilluks. It is surprising to see stretches of many miles of land covered with herds of cows and bulls; and to see clouds of birds by the thousands and millions (I am not exaggerating at all) of every species, colour and size, blocking the sight of the sun.
Imagine forests and grasslands where birds are never hunted. The natives do nothing to catch the birds, which on the other hand are not a popular food among them. As we proceed they grow less, and they hide increasingly in the bushes until we can see no more. Thus the banks until the 7th parallel appear to be covered only with reeds, papyrus, and mimosa bushes. Only every now and then there grows a gigantic Baobab, the broadest and tallest tree in the world. Before reaching the capital of the Shilluks where we moored with the Stella Mattutina, I would like to give you a brief description of the two great tribes of the Shilluks and the Dinkas. The tribe of the Shilluks, one of the largest and most powerful in Central Africa, extends from the 12th degree to the 9th, Latitude North.
As far as we can see they have no religion. They believe only that there is an invisible spirit who has made everything, and who sometimes comes down to visit them in the likeness of a lizard, a mouse or a bird. As the Shilluk do not have enough herds of cows both to make their marriages and to live, they are constantly at war with the neighbouring tribe of the Baqqarah, and they are now very rich, because of constantly stealing from the latter. Every year, when the winds blow from the south, that part of the Shilluk people who are feeling the pinch of poverty form large armies commanded by one of their chiefs. On their rapid canoes they go two hundred miles down the river and hide on the little islands densely covered with shrubs which I mentioned above.
When they have finished exploring the places where the Baqqarah take and water their herds, they form teams of 30 to 40 canoes which, being fast, long and low, can travel unobserved at night and easily disappear behind the thick undergrowth on the banks. When the herds arrive and plunge thirstily into the water, the concealed Shilluks charge, spear in hand, into the midst of the terrified herdsmen, and embark cattle, sheep, bulls, etc. and return to their islands even before the distant camps of Baqqarah can come to the aid of their assaulted brothers; and since they have no boats, nor any means to chase the robbers, they can only threaten their thieving enemies from afar.
Then the Baqqarah sometimes take revenge on the Shilluks. They are sometimes informed of the arrival and hostile plans of the Shilluks, and wait for them on stretches of the river where the vegetation is dense. Then they take them by surprise the moment when the black men are stalking their prey, separate them from their boats, and take them prisoner, sell them as slaves to Nubian merchants and they then become saleable goods in the Khartoum markets.
The Shilluks have a despotic government. Although we passed in front of their capital, we did not see their king’s residence here. The royal quarters are located about three miles away and, as a native who could speak Arabic told me, are built in the form of a labyrinth. The king’s life is not safe from evening to morning; and he lives invisible, never sleeping two nights in the same room.
All the villages of this vast tribe are obliged to pay an annual tribute of many heads of cattle, according to their wealth or the number of inhabitants. Furthermore, the king has a right to one-third of all the booty his subjects plunder outside the tribe, and punishes by its total loss, or almost, those who have stolen it and have not brought his quota. Like all the tribes in Africa they practise polygamy. They can leave or keep as many women as they like, and abandon them whenever it suits them. With regard to hippopotamus hunting, the form of their huts, etc., as they are similar to those of the other African tribes we have come across, I will say something about them when I tell you about those.
We had several chances to become acquainted with and observe this people. They are tall and strong-limbed, and I saw many who were enormous. The men, like all the African black people we visited, are completely naked. So are the women with the exception of those who are married who are clad in the skin of a sheep or goat, knotted on their left or right side. The richest have tiger skins, but they are not much use to cover what ought to be covered. I would almost say, as far as I could see, that I tend to believe that this is not done from feelings of modesty, but through pride. The whimsy of the Shilluks is particularly noticeable in the way they dress their hair. They cut it in thousands of different ways: in the shape of coxcombs or goats beards, and sometimes when they trim it they leave what hair is left looking like sheep or tiger ears. I would not be able to describe to you in detail all the oddities of this kind of adornment, of which they are proud.
This would seem a suitable tribe for our Missionary plan; but for reasons which I will tell you, we left it, and here we are at its capital, Denab, and Kaco. This town is situated on the White Nile and is several miles long. The king never grants audiences to anyone except three or four of his trusted intimates, and his numerous women when he wants to use them. When these trusted subjects present themselves they have to creep like snakes, and receive his orders with their faces to the ground. They then have to retire creeping; well, you will allow me to use the Veronese phrase, to enable you to understand. When they present themselves to the king they have to enter his hut gattognao [on hands and elbows]. In front of the Shilluk capital we enjoyed a surprising sight. When the Stella Mattutina moored in front of it, a rabble of people of different races and customs appeared and stood gaping on the market bank. Among them was a race of men who were completely red, like fresh blood, of whom I have seen some near Halfaya.
There were nomads of a reddish colour. There were the Abu-Gerid, a people who are a terracotta colour. There were some who were absolutely yellowish, who resembled the Hassanieh. Some were Kordofans, who are a brownish-black; and then the nationals, the Shilluks, who like all black Central Africans are always armed with a spear (whose shape varies according to the tribe), a leather shield of an oblong shape and arrows; they always carry these weapons (except for the shield which they sometimes lay down) whether they are grazing their flocks, bargaining or doing nothing. All the tribes we visited use spears for self-defence or to attack, and to cut anything that serves for their use, for fishing, hunting, etc.
Both men and women are adorned with strings of beads which they wear around the neck, or as we do with waist bands, they wrap them round their hips or forehead; and the one who has the most beads is considered the most beautiful: I have seen a chief’s son who was loaded with pieces of glass down to his stomach and strutting like the lord of the world.
In this regard the king thinks he is the grandest monarch on earth with the exception of the King of Abyssinia. This is why he will grant no one an audience, with the exception of the King of Abyssinia if he were to visit. In Kaco, a town of the Shilluks located on the 10th parallel, I attempted to find similarities with my friend Bahkit Miniscalchi’s language; but I found it different. Moreover I am of the opinion that through Kaco it will be very easily possible to penetrate the tribes of the Karco and Fanda, that is, Gebel Nuba, without crossing the desert of the Baqqarah, and the Kordofan and Dongola, the route taken by the Moor Miniscalchi. This tribe also would be suitable for our plan, but the reasons I shall explain to you were against it. The whole of the left coast of the Shilluks as far as 9.5° Latitude North swarmed with armed Shilluks as I told you; they walk very awkwardly with the heels turned outwards.
But let us come to the Dinka. This is Central Africa’s largest tribe as far as we can see; and this is the reason why for a long time we have turned our eyes towards it, selecting it to be the focal point of our efforts and the field of our labour. As regards this tribe’s condition, its government, religion, etc., we have no exact knowledge. Its boundaries are unknown. However, before making this choice we would like to have a look at other tribes and then we can make a more correct and certain decision. The Dinka, like all the tribes we have seen, naked as they are, cover their whole body, head and eyes with ashes; we were told that this was to protect themselves from the mosquitoes, which in an infinite number and various species, torment the inhabitants of Central Africa.
The [river] banks are overflowing with crocodiles and hippopotamuses. One day, from a distant point I saw a big long rock which I believed was made of red granite; it was an island formed by large hippopotamuses all massed together. The Dinkas, like all the black people in Africa, wear ivory bracelets at the elbow and wrists. Their arrows are dipped in a certain poisonous herb and are therefore lethal. The members of this tribe are distinguished from other Negro races. They have a wide and pronounced forehead and a flat cranium, sloping towards the temples, and a long, slim body.
Seeing these men holding their spears, carelessly leaning their bodies on their shields it seemed the picture of an idle, lazy life; and as long as they have merissa to make themselves drunk, milk to nourish them and women to deal with, they want nothing else. But the light of the Gospel will shine before their eyes, penetrating their minds and hearts, and with divine grace they will change their thoughts, their counsel and their customs. Their language is widespread among other African tribes and it seems to me that it is nothing but a mass of monosyllables. The Dinka villages are very poor, and contrast with the majestic towns of the Shilluks, which are bigger, more spacious and more comfortable. All the towns are a mass of villages joined together which can be distinguished by a space between them of about 30 steps. The villages consist in fifty, a hundred, three hundred or more huts, which are almost conical in shape. The wall around them is circular, about 7 foot high and is made of mud. They are covered with rather elegant cane roofing. Look at sketch n. 1 which gives an idea of Kaco. But enough about the Dinkas(1): later, if God pleases, when we succeed in penetrating this vast tribe, I shall be able to give you more abundant information.
Nonetheless, before going on I would like to describe to you how we stopped at Hano to provide ourselves with a bull. Here we received the old chief (Sheikh) of this town on board the Stella Mattutina. With his white hair, his trembling limbs, naked as he was, he aroused our compassion. We took him into our beautiful chapel, and surprised by the marvel he let out a loud cry and retreated like a man out of his senses. Taking him to a large mirror in the saloon of the boat, it is impossible to describe his strange and curious behaviour. Seeing his face in the mirror he talked to himself, answered, shouted, burst in to loud guffaws, and finally, perhaps prompted by something he saw in the mirror, he tried to flee. We held him back; and he made so many protests with words, that he seemed to want to put his authority in our hands. Finally he went back to land on a boat made of ambary stalks bound together like bundled vine branches with which the Shilluks usually cross the Nile.
That village, or town, was surrounded by the loveliest doleb palms, a tree like the date palm with this difference: the plant is broader in the middle than it is at the base or at the top. A few miles beyond Hano is the majestic mouth of the River Sobat, which leads inland to the heart of the Dinka tribe. It is, so to speak, still red with the blood of some who have attempted to enter it. These paid the penalty because they came along with a hostile attitude, threatening the natives if they did not bring out the elephant tusks in their possession. Right from Europe we were determined to penetrate the Dinkas through the mouth of the Sobat; and perhaps we will carry out this project. But now since Aswan we have thought that we should investigate several places, the better to ascertain where it would please God for us to found our mission.
This delta forms a delightful lake fringed with fertile vegetation. When it reaches this point the river suddenly turns exactly West, watering on the left the tribe of the Janghèhs, on the right the immense swamp of the Nuer, which is a real island, surrounded on one side by the Nile and on the other by the channel of the Nuer, and has a circumference of more than 400miles. I will say nothing to you about the small tribe of the Janghèh, except that it is full of papyrus plants which the ancients used to write on instead of paper, and which once grew abundantly in Egypt. This beneficial plant is like that of maize, except that its leaves, like hair, fall gracefully like a mane. In this tribe we hailed some natives who roughly but cordially responded with cries to our greeting, exultant because they had killed a large hippopotamus, pieces of whose flesh they had spread out in the sun to eat raw, as is the Negro habit.
In the Janghèh we saw many baobabs of middling size, immense herds of wild buffalo, which are the size of an ox, with monstrously twisted horns on their heads and which these people hunt. Towards the Tkem Mountains, and Tira, which are very far inland to the west, there are immense giraffes which with their long necks reach the height of 25 feet. Then the right bank of the Nuer afforded us the sight of a herd of huge elephants of which there are many in that immense swamp, which were grazing and seemed to have come to the river to drink. There are many rhinoceroses, one of which was killed the other day, near our temporary station. It was after seeing these elephants that a gust of wind ripped the mainsail of our boat so that we were forced to stay half a day in that swamp, near the place where a Nubian from the Khartoum mission, who had strayed from the bank, was killed by a Nuer with a thrust of a spear.
There, while Fr Beltrame was hunting a hippopotamus, I wanted to follow a flock of Abusin, birds as large as small goats: but although Fr Giovanni is quite a good shot, the hippopotamus did not even deign to move because its hide alone is 4 fingers thick; and at my shots, the Abusin hardly bothered to fly a few steps off, scorning my efforts as though they were nothing. I have never fired bullets. When the sail was repaired, we continued our journey, with the sail reefed (rolled up) and without full sails the boat sped along like a steamer. Two days after turning to the west, we reached the mouth of another very large Central African river, the Bahr-el-Ghazàl, or deer river. The aspect of this lake formed by the White Nile and Ghazàl Rivers was of an enchanted lake, whose shores were edged with immense and delightful gardens of mimosas, ambaries and baobabs, the work of nature and which human hands had never dared touch.
At this point, which is on the 9th degree, we went directly south, continuing to skirt the immense tribe of the Nuers who live on the left and right banks. From here as far as the Kich, there are more than 40 bends in the river which curves now to the south, now to the north, now to the east, now to the west; so that for several days the boatmen had to tow the boat (tirare l’anzana you say on Lake Garda), under the most scorching sun. Since the Nuers think little of a man’s life, every time the boatmen landed they always had to arm themselves. The trickiest were the places where, with a contrary wind, they could not land because of the shrubs which spread their thick branches far into the river; then we had to cast anchor, and wait for a propitious wind. But casting anchor on the White Nile is not like doing so on a lake because the current carries you downstream. In this process one evening we enjoyed a surprise spectacle of hippopotamuses and ibis. We saw thousands and thousands of hippopotamuses all the way from Khartoum and as many ibis. The hippopotamus, four times the size of an ox, has an enormous head the shape of that of a calf. Aman could stand upright in its mouth. Its back is like that of a horse and its short legs like a pig’s, but in proportion. Its ordinary mooing is like a cow’s but at a lower register. The hippopotamus lives in the water during the day and at night emerges from the river and grazes on grass. In the places where there is grain and durra, like in Nubia, it can destroy a field in a single night. Towards evening the hippopotamus rises from the river bottom and suddenly snorting and bellowing, bounding like a horse, it then plunges into the river disturbing the water like a storm. Our boat frequently sailed over the backs of hippopotamuses. And we often had to take tremendous bumps, caused by a passing hippopotamus. Indeed, on board the Stella Mattutina, a few years ago the cook who was cooking was knocked into the water by a hippopotamus, and swallowed in a single gulp.
Now that evening we found ourselves in the midst of a thousand hippopotamuses, and with their snorting and bellowing and sudden stampedes it seemed that a throng of these terrible amphibians was battling round us. This scene lasted until dawn, and frequently forced the ship to cross to the other side of the river to avoid these terrible animals all massed together and forming as many islands. That evening again we covered many miles, looking longingly on the right bank, at a three-mile stretch of very tall trees, all covered in ibis.
The ibis is twice the size of our turkey, with a long neck, a duck’s bill and the most beautiful plumage: the ibis was in ancient times one of the greatest Egyptian gods. Even now its name has been perpetuated by a society of scientists in Verona who print a sheet entitled Ibis. So imagine continuing for three miles through a stretch of trees all covered rather than with flies by hundreds of thousands of these precious birds, which are fearlessly observing the Stella Mattutina as she passes by.
That was a reason to praise the greatness of God who with such wisdom and power thought even of those animals. The haziness of that evening and night was increased by the endless fires of the Nuers. To clear the way to the river from inland, they set light to the tall plants all over the plain; it is a spectacle worth seeing. The vast Nuer territory also offered us the spectacle of immense troops of antelopes, buffaloes and many other animals. Once we had passed the very large town of Goden, to our extreme surprise we saw that the black people cultivate durra. Their huts looked like those of the Shilluks but each was separated from the next by many steps, and durra was planted around each hut, to provide for the family. The tribe of the Nuers is the most hard-working of all we have seen and therefore in my opinion the richest. I came to learn something about this people, since we stopped in Fandah-el-Eliab which is like their capital and the tribe’s main market.
Here I would like to make a brief digression for you. Right from Europe, from books, etc. and especially after the tragic tales we heard in Khartoum, we formed a frightening impression of the Nuers that they killed and ate people, etc., etc. and we were convinced of this in Khartoum in particular, where we were advised to arm ourselves with many guns to withstand the assaults of the Negroes. Ever since the tribe of the Hassanieh we had always seen the Negroes fleeing before us. The Baqqarahs, the Shilluks, the Dinkas, the Nuers, etc., either answered our greeting or fled. Therefore to tell you in a word, although we find ourselves, and have always found ourselves, among so many people armed with spears, shields, poisonous arrows and clubs, I must conclude that they fear us and are more afraid of us than we are of them. Which is why, when we present ourselves to the black tribes, we walk unafraid and without showing any fear, so that seeing us so firm, they flee if we do not invite them to stay with us.
I put this into practice when having reached Fandah, I wandered in among the spears at a large market of the Nuers, who as we passed made way for us as though an emperor were passing. On that occasion I came to see the eccentricity of the Nuer men and women. Many had their hair plastered with mud, ashes or durra, and trailing like tails. Others wore wigs all covered in beads and glass, like military helmets. Others had their hair stiffly curling towards the sky, like those devils which are painted at home. Others had brass or copper squares on their forehead. Others wore hair flattened out like a plate. Others wore strips of tiger skin around their neck, all with two, three or even five bracelets at the elbows; which, adorning the body of those naked figures smeared in ashes, I tell you the truth, looked like a crowd of devils. The women were even stranger. Their ears were hung with two, three, ten and even fifteen copper rings; others had their ears covered in beads and glass, others with their stomach decorated with strings of rings, beads, etc., and many had a string of beads or glass or copper embedded in their upper lip and sticking upwards.
All in all it was quite a sight to see them among the spears, shields and arrows. The face of the women is monstrous, they have long white teeth, their skin wrinkled by ashes and their bodies are hideously plastered; to tell the truth they almost make one vomit. This vast tribe of Nuer would be a most splendid area for our efforts; but their swampy land is deadly for the European. And I will tell you a little later what further reinforces our reasons. In Fandah we received on board this tribe’s chief who expressed the same wonder as the chief in Hauo: but this one was prouder and more determined.
Close to Meha, we saw a woman’s corpse in the river. We realised that we were in the Kich tribe, where the bad habit of throwing dead bodies into the river exists. A Circassian Koshut with three others came there to meet us on the Stella Mattutina and told us many things about the tribe of the Angai, which is situated in the heart of the interior, and whose chief a little while ago bought a handsome youth for 17 oxen and then killed him. We saw the chief of the tribe as dirty as a pig and angry because the Nuers had just descended on his tribe and rustled all their herds. We saw the wretched hovels of the Kich which told us much of the poverty in which those poor Africans live. Passing in front of a village where one of the chiefs was, he came behind our ship saying “our lord has come” crying cham-cham which means I am hungry; and when we gave him some biscuit, he wanted to follow us armed from the bank, almost as if to protect our way from the thieves who are very numerous; indeed it can be said that the Kich are all thieves, although not very shrewd, and timid.
Having left the large town of Abu-Kuka, aided by the Negroes who were towing our ship, finally on 14th February we reached the Station of Holy Cross where we are now, in the country of Pà-Nòm, 25 days after our departure from Khartoum, a little more than 1,000 miles from that city, by precise and close calculations. Pà-Nòm is located at 7° Latitude North, and it is a magnificent central point, safer than the others, from which to undertake explorations. So here we stay; and if nothing else happens to the contrary, we are determined to organise our Superior’s plan and carry out his orders, to find a tribe suitable to our plans; and this is what we intend to do. From all our reconnoitring and the information we possess we have been able to discover with certainty that the Dinka’s language is the most widespread of all Africa watered by the Bahar-el-Abiad. It is spoken and understood not only by the tribe of the Dinka, but also by the Nuers, the Janghèhs, the Kich, the Tuit and by the Shilluks who dwell on the left bank opposite the Dinka.
We are now stopping here with the Kich to learn the Dinka language and at the same time do some exploration to get a clearer idea on what God wants us to do. When we have learned the language, we will immediately have many tribes who speak Dinka to choose from. In this way we have more time in which to consult the Lord’s will.
Our present temporary post is situated not far from the river, at the edge of unexplored forest full of elephants, tigers, lions, hyenas, buffaloes, rhinoceroses and other wild animals and ferocious beasts. Every night elephants and lions and other beasts come by our camp and go to the river to drink. Three days after our arrival among the Kich, a lion dragged an ass out of the pen and made a mess of its back. Two days later we saw more than 200 elephants pass close by us (shut into our huts) and drink at the river. Last Sunday when Fr Angelo and I went into the forest for an hour and a half looking for some small trees there with which to build a hut, we saw a large number of fallen trees lying on the ground, the work of elephants, and the spoor of buffaloes and lions, but we came across no fierce animals, because they move about at night and because God was protecting us. I promised you earlier to tell you something about our elephant and hippopotamus hunts but I have no time. It will be enough for me to tell you that the elephant is the biggest animal known on earth and with its proboscis (trunk) can uproot very large trees, that its two front tusks weigh three, four and even five measures each; and that in Cairo the price of an elephant tusk is 100 thaler per kantar (4 of our measures).
Dearest parents, I see that I am indeed in a world different from that of Europe. […] Furthermore, it seems to me that the accounts of travellers in Africa are exaggerated. It is true that these men who massacre and kill are cruel to whites; but only when they are provoked.
We came here with the kiss of peace to bring them the greatest good that exists, Religion. They have never given us any reason for disgust: they bring us wood, straw and everything there is. In exchange we give them durra grain or glass beads and they go away satisfied. Do not fear, my dearest ones. With the crucifix on my breast and words of peace the fiercest beasts are tamed. It is true that God’s grace is essential, but this is never lacking. We must toil, sweat and die, but the thought that we sweat and die for the love of Jesus Christ and for the salvation of the most abandoned souls in the world is too sweet for us to be frightened away from this great undertaking.
The first effort that God has desired us to make is to learn the language of the Dinkas. As long as one has grammar books, dictionaries and good teachers it is not so difficult to acquire a foreign language. But our case is very different. The Dinka language has never been known; so there are no grammars or dictionaries or teachers. It is we who will put together the grammar and a dictionary of the Dinka language. This means that we must take every word from the lips of these natives, who do not know our language or Arabic. Therefore we shall need to use gestures: you see how difficult it is!
Then as soon as we have a smattering of words, by logical deductions we will have to work out the grammatical rules, the formation of the tenses, the phraseology, and so forth. Yes, we must do it all ourselves. However, in order to preach we are not waiting to have a perfect knowledge of the language. As soon as we can stammer four short sentences you will see us in the midst of a crowd of armed men, giving them an idea of God, of Jesus Christ and of religion. We have already begun here among the Kich to gather them. May God move their hearts.
What still causes us sorrow is to see these people deplorably idle. There are plains of hundreds of miles of land that in Europe would produce miracles. And they leave it uncultivated. They suffer starvation and do not think of planting. It is true they lack tools and everything else, but the industry which taught them how to make spears and arrows should have also taught them to make themselves good hoes, shovels, picks, and knives. But I do not want to tell you anything about that, waiting until I know them better to describe them to you. Until now I have not mentioned their Religion and the ideas they have about God. In order to select a proper area for the Mission we must find out about everything, even things which do not seem to have anything to do with Religion. But the time will come when I will write to you about that too. Those who live on the river banks go fishing.
The Nile is full of large fish. The abundance of fish in our lake should not be compared with those in the Nile, and especially here among these tribes. I have deduced this from the way in which these natives fish. They have neither hooks nor nets. They have a long stick with an arrow fixed to one end; then they get into their canoes, and cover for example a stretch of about a hundred steps, constantly and haphazardly thrusting with the cane, without having taken aim at a fish beforehand. And in a short time they succeed in catching an innumerable quantity of fish. Their canoes are the length of our boats, but exceedingly narrow, no wider than three spans with barely room for one person. The Shilluks make these and bind them together with strings of tree bark; and here among the Kich they are of a single block, hollowed out by harpoon blows.
But enough, dear parents. I would have other things to tell you, I would like to stay with you always to comfort you, to repeat to you to be glad and unworried. Do not complain of the distance and my leaving you; let those who have no faith moan about the distance. Supposing even that we were never to meet again on this earth, is it not fortunate to leave one another on earth to find ourselves blessed in heaven, and forever?
Those narrow-minded, poor people who know of no other world than this or of no other union than the physical one of the person can complain of farewells, distance and abandonment, but, through our faith, we know that Paradise exists; and that there all the true children of God come together; there the prayers of men converge, raised from all the corners of the earth. Therefore although you may be in one part of the world and I in another, we are and will always be united, because we are linked to a single point: God, who is the centre of communication between me and you.
But do you know what Providence has ordained?… Perhaps we shall see each other again. The African climate is terrible; but not as bad as is believed. Doesn’t it seem miraculous to you that of all six of us no one has died on the journey? For your consolation I must also tell you that the position where we are is much better than that of Khartoum, and it is healthy. We are already used to the heat: fevers come and go, but finally they go. I shall die. God knows it, but so far I am healthy. And all five of us are in wonderfully good health. We thank the Lord, but with the proviso that he sends us other tribulations if he does not want to send us illnesses and deaths.
But this is enough, my beloved parents. May the Lord bless you, first in soul and then in body. Remember that I always keep you in my heart. My companions send you their sincere greetings, and send you their holy blessing, hoping that you remember them! Pray for them and for the Mission. When you least expect, God will console you. And then, won’t I be able to comfort you with my letters? Wretched and scanty they may be, but think that they are written, if scrappy, by your son who loves you.
I treasure your letters like a relic. I file them as soon as I receive them, and when I am oppressed by a natural inclination to grieve for you I read them and they comfort me, because I know I am alive in your memory. You too, do the same. When things go wrong (which then is a sign that we are in this world) read a few pages of these rough scribbles of letters, which I send you from time to time, and you will see that they will console you. Oh who knows what consolations God has prepared for you on earth! However, you must always aim for those of heaven, spurning temporal ones. God sees everything! God is capable of everything! God loves us! Pray for the conversion of Africa.
Meanwhile I give both of you my greetings. Greet Eustachio affectionately, Erminia, Uncle Giuseppe, Cesare, Pietro, Vienna and all our relatives, not forgetting to give Eugenio a kiss for me when he returns gloriously from Innsbruck. Give my respects to Signor Councillor, the Master, Signora Livia through them, Adolfo and the Signori Giacomo and Teresa Ferrari of Riva. Give my respects to the new Spiritual Counsellor, telling him that as his parishioner I also have a right to his pastoral solicitude. But since he is in one hemisphere and I in another, and since I am many miles away from his eyes, and so he cannot put his paternal care into practice, at least I have a right to participate in this pastoral solicitude with prayers; then as his office brings him to pray to the Lord for his people, and on feast days to say Mass Pro Populo, I intend to share in his pastoral care, participating in his prayers. In a word, tell him to pray to the Lord for me, one of his lambs, however lost.
Give my greetings to Signor Giuseppe and Giulia Carettoni, Signor Pietro Ragusini and Bortolo Carboni, the Patuzzi family, old and young, Fr Bem, the three Parolari-Patuzzi ladies, the Girardis, that is, the Signora Nina and Titta, Signor Giovanni, Ventura, etc. the doctor, all the Lucchinis, our friend Antonio Risatti, the Corporal also on Fr Angelo’s behalf, the painter, the gardeners of Supino and Tesolo, Rambottini and Barbera, good Pietro Roensa and his family and daughter, the servant of our relations. And it goes without saying, to our servant. Say hello to Signora Cattina Lucchini, Sassani, etc., etc. Send my cordial greetings to the Archpriest of Pieve, to Fr Luigi, Fr Pietro, to the parish priest of Voltino, to Dr David and to that lovely old soul, Marianna Perini.
In a word, greet all those who come to our house, the Minico in Riva, our relatives in Bogliaco and Maderno, and all the people of Limone. Tell them in Limone that I have left them physically, but never mentally. The sweetness of thoughts of home can only be felt by those who are far away. Tell them to pray to the Lord for one of their compatriots who feels affection for them even at a distance. Remember me to the invulnerable Pirele and his wife, the prim Maria. So goodbye, my dear parents. I enjoy telling you once again that I am in the best of health. I hope the same for you. I hope that when you receive this letter, you will already have received the bundle from Jerusalem. Tell those to whom I have sent souvenirs to remember me to God. I send you my fondest embrace together with my holy blessing, from

Your most affectionate son

Fr Daniel Comboni

Apostolic Missionary in Central Africa

(1) Dinkas cut their two incisors at the age of 7.

Eustachio Comboni
Kich tribe
5. 3.1858

My dearest Cousin!

From the tribe of the Kich at 7° Latitude North

5 March 1858
I do not remember whether I made a justifiable complaint in my last letter written in Khartoum; even if I did, I want to repeat it to you this time. Opening your dear letter at this very moment, I find no news of little Erminio…enough… you understand… I would like you to tell me not only about dearest Eugenio, but also about the others. I hope that you are all well, and Uncle too.
I gather that Uncle is longing to make the journey to Jerusalem: it would be wonderful, since I am sure that afterwards he would die happy. However, to tell you the truth I would not recommend him to take this step; not because of the 2,000 miles of sea to cover, but because of crossing the mountains of Judea which are not always safe; and then one needs the strength of youth since one has to put up with discomfort and other hardships which are incompatible with having 60 years behind one. Even less would I advise him to travel with the friars who, since they have become accustomed to suffering, find it no trouble to spend a month on a dirty, bad-smelling vessel. Nonetheless, if Uncle is determined to go on this journey next Easter, it would be best were he to go with Lloyd Austriaco and were you to set about writing to me immediately so that I can recommend him in Alexandria and Jaffa, and to the French Consul in Jerusalem and in all the cities in Palestine where I have trustworthy contacts. I warn him again that not all the friars are suitable, as experience has taught me. As for the language, those who have no acquaintances can get by on Italian since there are more than 100 Italian Missionaries in Palestine. Enough said.
My present position and occupations prevent me from giving you a brief description of my journey in Central Africa. You will be able to read the confused mess of scribbling and ideas which I wrote to my father. What a change has happened in my life! Six months ago I was among cultivated people, in civilisation, among Christians. Now I cannot turn round without bumping into a mob of poor creatures who, with the expression in their language, ciam ciam (I’m hungry), pester us for baksheesh. In Europe we live in houses with walls, we eat off tables and sleep in beds. Here a rough cane and reed hut awaits us, we eat with relish on one of our travelling trunks and sleep on a mat or a rough angharèb made of date tree fibres.
In Europe only dogs, goats, oxen, donkeys are to be seen; here we are virtually familiar with elephants and their long trunks, buffaloes with their two-pronged horns, hippopotamuses with their gaping mouths, with crocodiles, hyenas, lions and the other fierce animals that roam around our huts at night. Nevertheless, I find I am perfectly content because, although I do not yet see how these people can be converted and while I absolutely distrust human means, I have faith that God’s grace will work a miracle.
Our life, a Missionary’s life, is a combination of grief and enjoyment, exhaustion and hope, suffering and consolation. We work with our hands and our heads, we travel on foot and in canoes. We study, we sweat, we suffer, we rejoice. This is all that Providence wants of us.
Yesterday, after receiving a visit from the chief of Abukuk from whom we have to buy a boat, after speaking to him of God and Heaven, he asked whether there were any cattle and copper earrings in this paradise. He has 10 wives, about 1,000 head of cattle, three coffers of glass beads and asked us for food because he was hungry! Indeed, he came to beg alms from us several times. Here there is only one season. The hottest period is from November to April when the sun beats directly down on our heads. From April to November it is less hot, because of the rains. But enough. You will be able read in your own time the skimpy account of the journey I sent my father.
I hope that you are enjoying excellent health and that my good cousin Erminia will seldom be stricken with convulsions. Give her all my greetings. I recommend my dear Eugenio to you with all my heart. In guiding and advising him, in keeping an eye on him (it gives me the greatest pleasure to know how attentive you are to this), rely on religion more than on worldly interests and vain ideas of grandeur. If he makes a success of Innsbruck, that is, if he is not contaminated by frequenting bad company (something I am very afraid of, because of the perversity of modern youth), you will see great things in good Eugenio.
I also commend Erminio to you, ensuring that he keeps away from certain ill-mannered, rough company. Since by his nature he is a little proud, it will be very appropriate to keep him humble and to watch over him but always try to let him express himself and let him know that you have hopes that he will improve. Otherwise he will succumb to a certain despair and relapse into his own bad character.
I recommend little Enrico to you again. Although he is less quick and alert, he will follow in Eugenio’s footsteps. Foster the idea of religion. Ensure that Cesare’s children are educated as well. God has given you the capacity to doso. Make the most of it: I dislike some of the crude ideas acquired from continuous contact with chronic bores, you understand… Education is man’s and woman’s most valuable asset. And it is more esteemed by God and by men than a legacy of thousands of florins. What you spend today earns you even financial profit in the future.
Meanwhile I take my leave. Write to me, my dear Eustachio. Your letters cheer me considerably, and I like them very much. Oh how dear are the words of distant loved ones! Let your children write to me too: give me news of them, and of my parents, of […] of Pietro, Cesare, and of everyone. Give my greetings to the Patriarch Beppo and his garrulous wife, Signora Giulia.
Tell her that I would like to know how to make bread the way she does, because nothing would persuade me to eat much durra; it tastes like what is called chalk. But blessed be God! Give my best wishes to Signor Giacomo and Teresa Ferrari, and, it goes without saying, to all our Riva relations and their respective servants. As I fondly embrace you with all my heart, I remain

Your most affectionate cousin

Fr Daniel Comboni

Remember me to Uncle, and tell him that our plates must be unbreakable. Please convey my special greetings to Fr Giordani and Fr Giovanni Bertanza too.
Fr. Nicola Mazza
Kich tribe
9. 3.1858
ACR, A, c. 15/39

My dear Fr Pietro!

From the Tribe of the Kich, 7° Latitude North 9/3 1858
Your dearest letter of 21/11 1857 which arrived from Khartoum a few days ago brought me a duty and a pleasure. I was sorry to think that my poor homeland had been left widowed of the wisest of her pastors. This is a great misfortune, and a portent of who knows what disasters! Then I felt pleasure, sincere pleasure to hear that you had finally been elected to the grand office of Archpriest of Toscolano. In this regard, I do not know whether your heart or the lucky people of Toscolano rejoiced the most, or the heart of your distant friend when a Nubian jallabah brought him the letter containing such good news.
No, no, dear Fr Pietro. It is not because you were the parish priest of Limone or the comfort of my isolated parents or any other secondary cause that I formed a close relationship mutually with you, even though shared over such a great distance.
It was affection. It was two hearts that happily merged into one; it was the closest and sincerest friendship which moved us both, to bring us close in a loyal and reciprocal correspondence. Therefore although I am far for Limone, although you are Archpriest of Toscolano, it does not mean that our epistolary relationship should be interrupted. I shall continue to keep you informed about the outcome of our great Mission without interruption. So Fr Pietro, continue to console my solitude with long letters that tell me about yourself, about everything to do with you, about your family, about Toscolano, etc., etc., because this will be thoroughly welcome news to me.
You will know, as I wrote to you from Khartoum, that Fr Giovanni, Fr Francesco, Fr Angelo and I left this city on 21st January after exchanging embraces with our confrere, Fr Dalbosco. We left him in Khartoum as our Procurator and a point of communication between us and Europe, although in Alexandria, Egypt, we had also established another (secular) Procurator in the person of Count Frisch from Vienna who is an excellent Italian. After rounding the extreme point of Omdurman at 16° Latitude North, where, at the confluence of the Bahar-el-Azrek and the Bahar-el-Abiad, these two great rivers become the Nile, our ship proudly enters the Bahar-el-Abiad which spreads out before us in all its majesty and beauty.
Although this great river is shallower, it is much wider than the Nile, and although sailing against the current, but favoured by a strong wind, our ship moves through those rough waves with the speed of our Garda steamers. The tribes whose borders are beyond Khartoum and located on their boundaries, are Hassanièh, the Lawin and the Baqqarah. They are nomadic because of their most important occupation, grazing their herds, since they are obliged to travel wherever they find the richest pasture land. Beyond these tribes are the Dinka on the right and the Shilluk on the left bank of the river. Before reaching them we enjoy the spectacle of nature left to itself, never restrained or corrupted by human hand.
The river banks are covered by a thick and vigorous vegetation which for a long stretch seems an enchanted Eden. Groups of hundreds of enamel-green islets scattered all over the river for about 200 miles look like the most delightful gardens. Untouched bush and an impenetrable undergrowth of gigantic mimosas, green nàbak, prickly acacia, papyrus, tamarind and other densely growing trees of every size, extend for a considerable distance inland to the east and west and offer safe concealment to thousands of antelopes, gazelles, giraffes, lions and other jungle beasts which fearlessly come and go in those inviolate recesses unmarked by human footprints. Immense swarms of birds of every kind, size and colour fly freely through those fronds, filling the air with squawks and charming twittering: ibis, royal eagles, wild duck, heron, abusin, abumarkub, gold feathered parrots, pelicans, abumias, etc., etc., hop or fly along the banks swarming by the thousand, and from a distance are easily confused with the monkeys that swing up and down through the trees, coming to drink at the river and grimacing as we pass. In brief, it is like seeing a forest on the move.
In addition to this spectacle there is the bellowing of thousands of hippopotamuses that rear their monstrous snorting heads from the water and often shake the boat with their backs, while on the islands regiments of basking crocodiles can be seen. One after another they creep into the water to take refuge as we pass. The hippopotamus is about 4 times the size of an ox. its mouth can gulp down a whole man, as we were told has happened several times. We often see them, their enormous mouths gaping wide. It is indeed a sight. We calculated that the largest crocodile we have seen was 20 feet long; but some measure 30. The hippopotamuses swim in groups of hundreds or thousands and dive into the depths as we pass.
In the tribe of the Nuer, our boat proceeded for four miles, the sails continuously filled with wind and skimming over the backs of hippopotamuses. The first time it was frightening: then one becomes used to it, although our ship’s cook was flung into the river by a hippopotamus and devoured. Beyond the 10th degree of latitude, nature appears less vivid, the vegetation diminishes and the banks are covered by reeds, until the 7th parallel. I skip over many events on this voyage, the herds of elephants, wild buffaloes, antelopes, etc. that we see from on board. I have omitted to speak of the tribes of the Dinka, the Nuer, the Janghèh, etc. through which we travelled, or the many impressions these immense regions made on us, because I would be too lengthy, as I was in an enormous epistle I wrote my father about this journey. Therefore, I will tell you only in passing about something that happened to us in the tribe of the Shilluk.
On 30th January, our ship ran aground at Mocàda el-Kelb in this tribe’s territory. We ran aground in the Nile and in the White River more than a thousand times because the river is low in many places, but here the wind forced it in so far that the effort of 15 of our boatmen was not sufficient to free it. When the ship runs aground the boatmen climb into the water and heaving with their shoulders add to the force of the wind and the boat is released. On the evening of 29th January, after repeated efforts, our captain told us that he did not know how he was going to free the vessel. We were in the country of the Dinka on the right and on the left the Shilluk, who live from plundering and must give a third of their booty to their king. Lined up on the beach we could see 10 boats of Shilluk armed with lances, bows, arrows, clubs and shields.
In Khartoum we had heard horrible descriptions of the Shilluk, and the captain confirmed them all. In the evening, we consulted one another as to how to get out of this situation but we could not come up with any satisfactory solution. Finally we decided to call the Shilluks to help the boatmen, promising them glass beads and gifts. In the meantime we found it very difficult to prevent the sailors from arming themselves.
The Missionary would rather die than start his preaching of the Gospel by killing an enemy in self-defence. Moreover, what could be done with the 11 guns that we had taken to defend ourselves from the wild beasts? That night we had decided to call the Shilluks to our aid, and, if they seemed hostile, to give up our ship with all the contents; if we were not killed, we would attempt to plant the Cross within this tribe in which the light of the Gospel had never penetrated.
In the morning, what with shouting, raising our Mission flag, etc., we made the people on the bank understand that we were calling them. A felucca was launched with 12 gigantic natives armed as above. When we had made them understand that we wanted them to help the boatmen to free the boat, they answered that two of us should first board their boat as hostages whom they intended to take to the bank where they would bargain with their chief over the amount of beads they were to be given in return for their assistance. While the captain refused, we four prepared ourselves to go as hostages. Each took a great deal of persuading because we all wanted to be chosen as hostages.
While we continued our discussion, the men tried to help the boatmen. However after many efforts, seeing that the boat had not shifted, we tried to make them understand that they should call their brothers to come and help us. (Perhaps the Shilluk thought that after it had been released, it would be taken over to them). In less than half an hour another three armed boats appeared and 50 of them altogether strove to free the boat. As soon as she gave signs of moving, they all stopped and wanted the beads. We showed them to them. However since they did not trust us they wanted them immediately, and, as soon as we had handed them over, in a flash they abandoned our boat and fled. This happened on 30th January. In the evening we called again and again for help but no one came to our aid. What could we do in the middle of the river between two mighty tribes? Our situation was serious. But in our boat (which belongs to the Khartoum Mission) there is a beautiful chapel adorned with an image of Mary. Could our good Mother ever have abandoned four of her sons when they were striving to make her known at the same time as her Son to those wretched peoples? No, the good Mother came to our rescue, suggesting to us a means of extricating ourselves from the situation.
In the morning of 31st January, we improvised a raft with 15 oars and stacked it with 30 cases in order to lighten the ship’s load. With the efforts of those tireless Nubian sailors the ship was pushed to a place where the water was deep. Then with indescribable efforts and 10 hours of labour it was reloaded and we departed, thanking the Lord and Mary and leaving behind the disappointed Shilluks, among whom we observed an ominous coming and going. Praised be the Lord, whose marvellous help we have experienced on all our journeys.
From Khartoum to the Kich all the men and women go about completely naked, with the exception of the married women or rather those who are pregnant, who gird their loins with a goat or tiger skin. They sleep covered in ashes, they smear their body all over with ashes and are always armed with a spear, a bow, arrows and a shield, etc., etc. We have learned from our exploration that the most widely spoken language of the unknown regions of Central Africa is that of the Dinka, which is spoken not only by this tribe but by another ten or twelve. Therefore we shall stay here with the Kich to study this tongue and, at the same time, we shall explore towards the Equator. Subsequently, we shall start to preach the Gospel in the tribe we consider the most suitable, in accordance with the great plan of our Superior, Fr Mazza.
I have even started to practise medicine and at this point I have all the sick of the neighbourhood as patients. When they are cured they come to me and spit all over me, and take my hands especially and spit on them, a sign of deepest gratitude. I can stammer 522 words of the Dinka tongue; indeed, 523 because at this very moment I have discovered that a-gnáo means “cat”. It is an indescribable effort to learn a language by dragging each word from the natives’ lips: but enough, dear Fr Pietro; from this short page you cannot have the faintest idea of what was the object of our observations. But I shall write… My companions send you their heartfelt good wishes and congratulations on being called by Providence to tend such a large flock.
I rejoice to point out that despite the discomfort of a long journey, despite the scorching African sun, we are enjoying marvellous health. Sixteen of the 22 Missionaries in the Khartoum Mission which has existed for 10 years died and almost all during the first few months. We are prepared to die at any time and, in addition to the climate, the lack of doctors and medicine is a major cause of death. But glory be to the Lord. I send you heartfelt greetings. A small keepsake from Central Africa will arrive with the first consignment. I send my greetings to your mother, to the good Elisa, to all your family, to your clergy, to whose prayers I commend myself, to Giulia Pomaroli, to Engineer Mastella and his wife when you write to Modena, and believe me wholeheartedly

Your most affectionate

Daniel Comboni


NB. In this coming week, we are to attempt an exploration among the warlike tribe of the Tuit, which is located on the 6th degree of latitude. We made the chief of this tribe come here to the Kich. After we had presented him with a bundle of glass beads, crosses, etc., he told us that we could enter his tribe whenever we wished, that he would see to preparing his subjects. But he warned us not to enter his huts, because there is a spirit inside them that devours men. We assured him that we would put it to flight. No, he replied, it devours everything. We shall see. Now that we are beginning to speak this language haltingly, we can comfortably venture into the midst of these armed natives and tell them about God. Many already come in to Mass in the morning. Others come for instruction and many have adopted the custom of making the sign of the Cross. The practice of charity, especially by offering assistance to the sick, will be of great use in making ourselves popular.

Here both the living and the dying lie on the ground covered in ashes. This is all the medicine they have. The wretchedness of every kind that one finds among the tribes of Central Africa is deplorable. Oh! If many good priests of the Diocese of Brescia, who are now lazy and idle at home, could see so many millions of souls sitting in darkness and the shadow of death! If they could only fly here to these unknown regions, I would be sure they would become as many Apostles of Africa! But I also hope God’s Providence will move the generous hearts of the priests in Brescia. The thought that they are so ardent and generous with regard to the cause of the homeland convinces me that they would be even more so for God’s cause and the spread of his kingdom. But to do this a spark would be needed.
Oh! I hope that the example of the Missionaries of the Mazza Institute in Verona and of the Seminary of S. Calocero in Milan will also be a keen incentive to the fervent and magnanimous hearts of my brothers and compatriots in Brescia to throw themselves into great enterprises to spread God’s kingdom. Please offer my service to the Bishop of Brescia. But enough, dear Fr Pietro; write to me. The words of distant loved ones are precious! And the news of your current position, of the serious office to which you are called, etc., etc., and all the news you give me, will be precious. Goodbye!
Dr. Benedetto Patuzzi
Kich tribe
15. 3.1858
ACR, A, c. 15/88

My Beloved Companion and Friend,

From the tribe of the Kich in Central Africa at 7° Latitude North

15/3/ 1858
Oh what a great discovery your distant friend made today! Today I realised that time is truly an honest gentleman. And do you know why?… Because today I discovered that I am well on my way to becoming old. Oh! My dearest friend! Indeed, I am 27 years old today. It seems to me that only yesterday I was young. It seems to me like yesterday evening when I was little and I learned to make the sign of the Cross on my mother’s lap, or when for the first time on my own I left famous Teseul Valley, where I had breathed the first breath of life and went to your excellent patriarchal family, to learn the first rudiments of Italian literature from the famous grammarian Fr Pietro, your uncle. With the patience of Job, German perseverance, and often with some rough stick from the woodpile, for the considerable remuneration of 75 centesimi a month, he energetically took care of my instruction.
Oh how innocent and sweet are the memories of times past!… But you too, my dear Benedetto, have progressed in leaps and bounds towards the hoariness of your venerable forebears… So as you and I are ageing so rapidly, I would like us to devote this day to reminiscing over the events of our youth, in fact just as two glorious veterans of Napoleon would spend long hours recounting their past efforts, journeys, battles and triumphs, were they to find themselves together. Now, this time I am to play the lead; I shall start and keep you waiting while I recall my memories. Then you will play your part, when you have heard mine. But I am not going to touch on all the circumstances of my past experiences: I will only give you a very brief account of my journey on the Bahar-el-Abiad, hoping that it will be pleasant for you to hear about these things which happened to a sincere friend of yours who was thinking about you in those delightful moments and felt at the time that you were his companion and were sharing the many different impressions received.
Before reaching the short account of my journey on the Bahar-el-Abiad, I want to say beforehand that the Nile, on which I travelled from Cairo to Korosko, and from Berber to Khartoum, is formed of two great rivers known by the Arabs as Bahar-el-Azrek, or Blue River, and Bahar-el-Abiad or White River, so called after the colour of their waters which converge at Omdurman near Khartoum. There they form the Nile proper, which after flowing several thousand miles through Nubia and Egypt pours through many branches into the Mediterranean.
The sources of the Blue Nile have been known since antiquity. They are in the mountains of Abyssinia, not very far from Lake Tana, which has always been wrongly designated as the source of the Nile proper. Our Fr Giovanni Beltrame travelled up this river as far as 10° Latitude North, to discover a suitable spot for a Mission according to the great plan of our Superior, Fr Nicola Mazza. However, since no stretches along the Blue Nile were considered suitable for many justifiable reasons, the Superior established that we would attempt to put his plan into practice on the White Nile with this expedition.
I must also tell you in advance that this river, far longer, wider and more majestic than the Blue Nile, was once navigated to a certain point by some others, notably the Missionary Fr Angelo Vinco, from our Institute. Thus its banks are to some extent known. But no one has ever penetrated far inland, where there is no doubt that its tribes cover a vast area. Thus although their name is known because their boundaries reach to the river, leading them to be named quite rightly the tribes of the mysterious White Nile, they are unknown since nothing precise is known about their customs, population, government, religion and so forth.
This being said, we are to put our plan into practice in the Central African tribe we find the most suitable. In this task, the two Institutes of black men and women which the great man of God is forming in Verona as a fruitful seed-bed for founding the Missions of Central Africa will be of great use to us.
With this in view, after exchanging embraces with our dear companion Fr Alessandro Dalbosco who stayed on in Khartoum as Procurator and centre of communications between Europe and the tribes in which we count on settling, the four of us left on 21st January. We were Fr Gio. Beltrame, head of the Mission, Fr Francesco Oliboni, Fr Angelo Melotto and I, accompanied by Fr Matteo Kirchner, Missionary from the Station in Khartoum delegated by the Vicar Apostolic, who had gone to Europe, to visit the two stations of the Holy Cross and Gondokoro on his behalf.
The boat that was to take us on this perilous voyage was the Stella Mattutina, owned by the Khartoum Mission, the largest and certainly the most elegant of all those that had ever sailed the majestic waters of the White Nile. It had a crew of four skilled sailors under the command of an experienced Rais (captain), of proven worth, who had made this trip before. Several times we tangibly experienced his skill and expertise in the difficult art of navigating this great river. After quite a struggle with the north wind, having passed the Blue Nile at its extreme point at Omdurman, the junction where the two great rivers converge and where each retains the colour of its own waters for a stretch of at least four miles, we found ourselves with the White Nile ahead of us, unfolding in all its enchanting majesty and beauty.
A very brisk wind pushed us rapidly over the turbulent waters. Although we were going against the current, it seemed as though, humiliated, they drew back at the passage of our Stella Mattutina which advanced majestically at almost the speed of our steamers on Lake Garda. The distant banks where huge herds of oxen and goats graze are picturesquely clad in variegated green. Further inland, soaring towards the sky are the branches of gigantic mimosas above which numerous swarms of the most delightful birds fly unrestricted.
The first tribe we encountered beyond Khartoum was that of the Hassanièh whose territory extends to the right and the left of the river. Its inhabitants work with the herds which supply their main food. These nomads are always armed with spears, and like the Nubians which live here and there in the desert they always wear, knotted round their bare elbow, a sharp knife that serves their every need. It was precisely within the boundaries of this tribe that on the second day we stopped at Washellai to provide ourselves with an ox, because our Rais warned us that for a good number of days we would not be able to find food for ourselves and our crew. I cannot tell you anything about this tribe except that it is nomadic, and that most of its population, although there may be some small town or village, move about according to where they find the best and easiest grazing land for their cattle.
Beyond the 14th degree of latitude there are two other small tribes, the Shamkàb on the left and the Lawins on the right of the river, and beyond them towards the south begins the vast tribe of the Baqquarah, which to the left extends between 14° and 12° Latitude North and, to the right, from 13° to 12°. The space between them, from 13° to 14°, is occupied by the nomadic tribe of the Abu-Rof, of which I can tell you nothing definite except that it exists. Indeed here, along the banks occupied by the Baqquarah, and partly by the Shilluk, the scenery becomes more interesting and wonderful. The villages and dwellings begin to disappear; all is silent. Our dhow (the Stella Mattutina) is the only one that sails on those calm waters. From the deck we gaze filled with wonder at the spectacle of the virginal, uncontaminated nature, where this enchanting part of the river smiles.
For a long stretch its banks are covered by an impressive rampant vegetation that has never been restrained or altered by human hand. Dense and immense impenetrable forests, never yet explored, consisting of gigantic mimosas and the greenery of nabaks spreading over a long stretch, form a vast and multi-coloured enchanted wood that offers the safest concealment to great herds of gazelles and antelopes and a few fierce animals that we glimpse moving about freely, unafraid of hostile traps. These forests on the banks can sometimes be seen tenderly clad in graceful verbenas, and a certain sort of thick and supple grass that forms natural huts in which one would be protected from the heaviest rain. A string of hundreds of delightful islands, one after another, each more charming than the last and lightly veiled in enamel-green, look from afar like the most fertile gardens. These delightful islets are shaded by a series of mimosas and acacias which barely let a ray of the baking African sun through, and form an archipelago of enchanting richness and beauty for almost two hundred miles.
Never-ending flocks of birds of every size and colour, from the black and white ibis with its long curved beak, the pelican with its long white neck, the parrot with golden plumage, and the royal eagle, and wild duck, abusin, royal cranes, abumarcub and herons, marabous, etc., fly quietly and unafraid up and down through the branches and along the banks or among the thick grasses, frequently looking upwards to the heavens, as if they were blessing God for the river and forests he created for them. Monkeys of every sort leap in the woods, climbing the trees and peeping out from between the thick branches, swinging down to the river to drink, shrieking, taking flight, stopping abruptly; great crocodiles heedlessly bask on the bank or on the bare sand of some small stretch of a barren island. As we pass they slither clumsily away towards the river where they hide; immense hippopotamuses in hundreds rear their heads from the water snorting, and with noisy bellows sometimes bump our ship with their heaving backs and plunge into the river.
All in all, my dearest friend, I would not know how to give you even a dim idea of the marvellous spectacle we witnessed for several days among the tribes of the Baqquarah and the Shilluk. In the meantime our dhow skimmed rapidly over those white waters that now witnessed a few canoes laden with Africans armed with spears, who as we passed hurriedly fled, flattening themselves among the thick boughs of the trees which extend far beyond the bank, or landed and took cover in the woods; at times there were some Baqqarrahs in a canoe furtively observing us through the reeds with their spears in their hands; at other times there were some Shilluks, who after greeting us with their password Gabbadah would hurriedly flee and hide in the thickets. It was a somewhat curious scene to see on an island a large herd of cattle frightened by our ship passing that plunged suddenly into the channel to reach the bank. In vain the herdsmen tried to prevent them with their spears; scrambling on to their backs they were hastily carried across the river.
However our Stella Mattutina crashed against a reef. As soon as it had been made fit to continue, here we were at the Abuzeit pass, where since the river is considerably broad and shallow, the ship was lightly grounded. The boatmen were forced to jump into the river and heaving with their shoulders, lifted the boat to force her onwards. The efforts these tireless Nubians must make to free the boat in the shallows, especially when they continue for many miles, are something incredible. We proceeded, our sails now filled by strong wind, now very slowly on account of the shallow, sandy bottom, now bumping into some shoal hidden in the river, and having already passed the boundaries of the vast tribe of the Baqquarah, we found ourselves surrounded by the villages of the two large tribes of the Dinka on the right, and the Shilluk on the left of the river.
The Baqquarah, which means “herdsmen” in our language and who are so named because of the special preference these peoples have for training cattle, which serve them as beasts of burden and for riding, are frequently at war with the powerful tribe of the neighbouring Shilluk, which, not having enough cattle to arrange their marriages or keep their families, form large teams and on their rapid canoes hide among the long boughs which spread above the water from the neighbouring islets, wait for the Baqquarah to water their herds, and hurl themselves upon them, embark them and flee before the unfortunate herdsmen have time to call for help from the encampments close by.
Then the Baqquarah sometimes take revenge on the Shilluk, make slaves of them and sell them at the markets in the Kordofan and Khartoum. They are always armed with a spear and a heavy ebony stick, they are thickset, tall and sometimes gigantic. Many are given to robbery, and must give a third of their booty to the king, who lives unseen in a village not far from Denab, built like a labyrinth, and never sleeps two consecutive nights in the same hut. Horrible things are said and written about the cruelty of these people. However, thanks be to God, nothing bad happened to us passing through those parts, although they could easily have made a mess of us.
It was in particular just after the ford of Mocàda-el-Kelb, that our boat was swept by a very strong wind into muddy shallows, where the repeated efforts of the boatmen were unable to dislodge her. It was the night of the 27–28 January, and we could see the fires the Shilluk had lit on the left bank. They were idling away the time with their wives, while their canoes were anchored on the banks of the river. On the right, many of the Dinka, on catching sight of our boat and even more because of the Shilluk, retreated inland.
In the morning of 28th January, the boatmen leaped into the river and strove to dislodge the vessel, but their attempts were not rewarded. We were forced to call the Shilluk close by to our help. The Rais raised his voice and shouted to them, but no one stirred. He shouted loud and sonorous once again. Then a felucca left with 12 individuals armed with spears and sticks; and in less than five minutes they were on board our dhow. By dint of shouting they were made to understand that we wanted them to help us shift the boat. They answered that first they wanted to return to the bank to agree with the chief on the price for their aid and to do this they asked for two of us as hostages. To a repeated refusal by the Rais, and for a fistful of glass beads, those Shilluk set to heaving the boat with their shoulders. But because they were not skilled in this operation, their efforts came to nothing.
Then the Rais made them understand that they should call more boats and more of their brothers, and that they would be well rewarded. In less than a quarter of an hour another three boats of armed men appeared, who strove in confusion and chaos to help the boatmen in the difficult task of freeing the ship. Altogether, about 50 individuals set to work. Finally they succeeded in shifting her. But instead of continuing the work which had started well with repeated efforts, those suspicious men stopped, and demanded to be paid in glass beads. We showed them the beads and urged them to continue, but they refused. Finally we handed them over. As soon as they saw they had gained possession of the beads they immediately dispersed and returned to the bank, where they greedily gathered to share their reward, leaving us in an even worse position than before. The boatmen tried and tried to shift the boat, to no avail. This is how the whole day was spent.
In the evening we held a sort of session on how to free the boat, but no one came out with a satisfactory solution. To tell the truth our position was highly critical. There we were in the midst of two savage tribes, one more rapacious and feared than the other. Some of the Shilluk tribe live from robberies and are obliged to give a third of their gains to the king as has already been mentioned. They are constantly at war. The Shilluk would be unlikely to miss this opportunity to enrich themselves. The passage of the Stella Mattutina attracted a great number of observers as she was the loveliest boat the Sudan had ever seen. To all this should be added the tragic scenes depicted to us in Khartoum about the Shilluk; and then imagine how we felt in this emergency!
The idea of being captives, of being robbed and taken before that proud king who thinks he is the greatest monarch in the world after that of Abyssinia, far from daunting us caused us to envisage a Mission among the Shilluk. But one can never fear when one is watched over with compassionate care by the one who is called the Queen of the Apostles. And how could our Mother possibly be indifferent or fail to help four of her sons who were striving to make her known and loved by those barbarous people, among whom the light of truth had never shone and where the Cross of her divine Son had never been planted?
The next morning we turned confidently to this great Mother. Mass was celebrated in the beautiful chapel in the prow of the Stella Mattutina, dedicated indeed to Mary. Then we reflected and came to the following decision; and this is the means with which we were to try to free the ship from those muddy shallows. A raft was constructed using 16 of our boat’s large oars and planks and other pieces of wood, and it was made to float on the water. On it were loaded boxes of those objects which are not damaged by water, until the ship was lightened so that, with the combined efforts of the sailors she was lifted, moved and dragged completely out of that bog. Then turned and put in a part where the river bed was deep enough, with indescribable effort she was reloaded with the things that had been removed, and at five o’clock in the afternoon, 43 hours after dangerously running aground, with the joy of those who have achieved a triumph, we raised the sail in front of a crowd of armed Dinka who, lined up along the bank, seemed glad at our good fortune.
In the meantime, the Shilluk had fled but we did not know precisely why. About an hour after our departure from the ford, Mocada el Kelb, we ran aground again. But we were shifted, helped by the strong wind. Several times the Stella Mattutina hit a rock and recoiled. Frequently, as we were sitting on the bulwark or on a bench, we were suddenly thrown backwards. We would fall, and for days retained the scars of that moment on a knee or an arm or a foot.
We continued our voyage along the banks of the Shilluk, and passing an island, came across a long line of villages, one next to the other, for a distance of more than 4miles and not more than half a mile from the river. They were all well built in a cylindrical shape, of mud or reeds. They had pointed conical roofs covered in straw. Next to each other they were a pretty sight. Such simplicity, combined with the spark of trade they had with the Kordofan and the Sennar, led us to believe that the inhabitants of those huts were happy; but they are not, for they lack the knowledge of the One who is the source of true happiness. This enormous number of villages forms the great city of Kako, in front of which we stopped. The people came running up at our arrival, so that in less than 10 minutes a large number of men faced us, but above all women and children, bringing with them large earthenware jars and other smaller pottery or gourd containers, straw or reed mats, baskets, and durra grain, lentils, sesame, beans, eggs, poultry and every other kind of saleable object, so that in an instant the whole beach was swarming with people and a large market had been set up.
What made this view even more attractive was the variety that could be observed among the throng, since there were persons of many different races who could be distinguished by their different colour and facial features. There were in fact the negro Dinka and Shilluk, the brown of the Kordofan, the brown Baqquarah, the coppery red of the Abu-Gerid, the yellowish hue of the Hassanieh; to all of this was added the different ways of adorning their body and staining their skin, especially their face and head. Then the cries, the noisy din, the bumping into one another, the continuous coming and going and you can imagine what Kako market was like.
When our boatmen and our servant had made some of the most necessary provisions, we left, our minds disturbed by that unhappy people, thinking of the deplorable state they are in by lacking the light of truth. Already for some days that enchantment of nature I mentioned earlier had ceased. The right bank of the river began to look almost like a desert. Only from a distance could we see the vegetation on the left bank becoming sparser, mimosa, tamarind, and an occasional doleb palm proudly standing in the villages, and a few gigantic baobabs, which superbly spread their branches in the midst of a never-ending plain.
Armed Shilluk continued to show themselves on the bank, covered in ashes or strangely stained a reddish colour, more or less on the face and all over the body, and their hair was plastered in ashes and mud so that they seemed like frightful ghosts. At the beginning of February, proceeding slowly because the very strong wind made it impossible to keep the sail unreefed, we saw before us a long line of perhaps 30 villages, known by the name of Denab. It is said that one of these, three miles from the edge of the river, is the residence of the great king of the Shilluk, who lives unseen and never spends two consecutive nights in the same room or hut, because he fears he will be killed by his dissenting subjects.
He believes that after that of Abyssinia, he is the greatest king of the earth and will therefore grant an audience to no one except the king of Abyssinia, who does not even know of the tribe’s existence, and even less, that of the king of the Shilluk. Only his women and some ministers of his who are designated to collect his tributes are admitted to his presence; they may never come before him except crawling on their knees, with their belly and mouth on the ground. The Shilluks are tall. (1) They are thickset and sturdy, and aggressive. They go about constantly armed with spear and shield and are always ready to engage in battles and robberies [from ‘The Shilluks are tall…’to ‘to engage in battles’, the words were more or less crossed out by Comboni himself]. But enough of this powerful tribe. On the right of the river, opposite the immense bank of the Shilluk, live the Dinka, who, although they are intelligent, are nevertheless weaker than the Shilluk and therefore keep as far away as possible from the fierce and murderous Shilluks, who are given to every kind of theft, especially to trade in women and children whom they sell to the Jallaba who trade at the markets in the Nubian towns.
The Dinka are a great tribe of Africa who can easily be distinguished from members of other tribes by their broad and prominent forehead, flat skull that slopes towards the temples, and their long slim bodies; their language is the most extensively spoken of all the tribes in Central Africa on the Bahar-el-Abiad, and this is precisely the tribe we had set our sights on in Europe.
But we first wanted to undertake some diligent exploration and then, all in good time, the star of the Gospel would also shine on the arid lands of the completely unknown Dinka tribe. Close to Sobat, having stopped in Huae to purchase a bull, we invited the chief of that town to come aboard. He came fearful and uncertain and we welcomed him with all the signs of friendship, which seemed to reassure him. He entered our apartment and looking around seemed amazed, he walked on tiptoe with his arms raised. We showed him the elegantly decorated chapel and he seemed as if magnetised, and like those who are dazed, he retreated, his hands to his eyes. We put him in front of a mirror and his grimaces, faces, cries, gestures and peals of laughter when he saw his own face cannot be described.
He left so full of amazement at what he had seen that he must have believed he had been to heaven! We moved off, hoisting the sail, and on the same night passed the mouth of the Sobat, a large tributary of the White Nile and without a doubt bigger than our Italian Po. Its source is unknown, and we only know that it flows from the 5th degree, parallel to and to the east of the White Nile into which it flows as a tributary. It is precisely at this confluence where the majestic Bahar-el-Abiad suddenly veers sharply and exactly westward for more than 150 miles at 9°15’ of latitude. This stretch is flanked on the left by the Jangheh tribe and on the right by the great swamp of the Nuer, which we circled for more than 350 miles. It was on this fast stretch that in the morning we saw a herd of large elephants coming to drink at the river and then returning to conceal themselves in the woods.
We saw wild buffaloes the size of an ox in their thousands, fleeing as we passed, so that it looked as if it was an enormous army suddenly put to flight. After an hour a sudden gust ripped the mainsail, so that we were obliged to stop close to an island of more than 300 hippopotamuses, which deafened and threatened us with their sonorous dreadful bellowing.
We left in the evening after the boatmen had repaired the sail and the next morning, there we were at the confluence of the majestic Ghazàl River with the White River. The corner of their junction forms a delightful lake whose shores are a luxuriant green with reeds, and spinneys of papyrus increasing the beauty of the placid tranquillity of its waters. I mention the papyrus, with which you are very familiar because of the practice of the ancients who wrote on parchment made from it. The stems of this plant are between 5 and 7 feet tall, and are triangular rather than cylindrical in shape. They are three fingers broad at the root and more than one at the top, crowned with feathery fronds as green as the stalk, similar to the tops of our fennel plants. Here we also saw from close range entire islets, copses of this papyrus which, it seems, likes to grow near water, and swampy ground.
The rest of our journey turned out rather tedious. This was mainly because we were making such little headway since there were frequent enormous bends in the river. Setting us against the wind they forced the boatmen to tow our ship with ropes. The appearance of the banks became ever more melancholy and desolate. The delightful copses of ambaries and papyrus faded away and were succeeded by immense barren plains covered in dry burnt cane. In the evenings we would often be the spectators of the famous nocturnal fires, for the Nuer Negroes set fire to the vast plains covered with the thickest and tallest reeds in order to prepare the land for the new shoots to sprout after the rains. The thick blanket of smoke carried on the wind swathed the trees of the inland forest and made them look like a distant chain of mountains crowning the dim horizon. The flames of the fire that had been set flared up majestically now creeping, now spreading, like rapid waves on the track of new fuel, smothering other clumps of reeds and bursting out over a larger area crackling and roaring, blazing horribly.
We spent several nights watching this marvellous spectacle. Perhaps only the heroes of the greatest of the modern warriors beneath the walls of blazing Moscow might have had just a faint idea of what it was like. I seemed to see the God of armies lowering the skies and descending on a dark fog hurling down upon his enemies the thunderbolts of his divine wrath from the sky. The monotony of this journey beyond the Ghazal was further broken from time to time by immense clouds of millions of birds which blackened out the sunlight for quite some time, as when a fierce tempest unexpectedly approaches on a fine afternoon. Then immense swarms of royal cranes, pelicans and ibis by the thousand settled on the banks, deafening us with their cackling and rather nasty cawing. And I do not want to pass over in silence that one evening when, for three miles, we passed through an immense expanse of woods of ambaries, crammed full of ibis.
The sight of a large herd of thousands of wild buffaloes that took fright when we passed was another cause of wonder. Galloping over the enormous expanse they churned up the brown ashes of the burned canes and darkened the horizon. Moreover it was here at the 8th degree that we observed the largest number of hippopotamuses. It was worth seeing, hundreds of thousands of enormous hippopotamuses, snorting and issuing noisy, raucous bellows. They would rear their monstrous heads from the water and plunge them down again, making it gurgle and swirl, as when a gusty tempest approaches in the sea. At times they would press against the boat as if they were threatening it and at others they would let it slide over them, rocking it with their strong backs. The hippopotamus is a shapeless and gigantic animal. It can be four times as large as our oxen. In proportion, its head resembles that of a bull. Its teeth are extremely hard and enormous, the incisors being the biggest, though disproportionate and very white. The shape of the rest of the body is reminiscent of a pig, though without bristles, and except for the tail, it is smooth. Its skin is two or three fingers thick and is thus impenetrable for spears, harpoons and guns, except for a few small areas around the throat. Its snorts sound like several blunderbusses heard going off at a distance; its roar is also so loud that it reverberates on the banks and can be heard from very far away. The movement of its head and neck when it comes out of the water is like a charging war-horse, which is perhaps the reason it is called hippopotamus, meaning river horse.
I also saw some caught by the Africans. Apart from using harpoons to hunt these huge inhabitants of the White Nile, the Africans make deep holes, the mouth of which they cover with grass, and then they wait for the hippopotamuses to come out of the river at night to graze, and just as they think they have found enough food on the edge of the trap, the beasts fall in miserably and a large number of Negroes transfix the unfortunate victim with spears and harpoons.
The immense tribe of the Nuer, which extends from the mouths of the Bahr-el-Ghazal to the 7th degree, in addition to the islands mentioned above, which were on our left, includes yet another great stretch of country to the west of the river. It was precisely on this bank, at Fandah-eliab, that we enjoyed an even stranger sight than that of Kaco. The Nuer cultivate enough durra and other vegetables to sell to their neighbours. Thus although they are less powerful than the Dinka and the Shilluk, they are nevertheless better nourished and have a thicker-set physique, and living a less idle and slothful life makes them brighter and more lively. Since trade makes them richer it offers them the possibility of expressing their bizarre genius of adorning their bodies in a thousand strange ways; hence although they are completely naked, they nonetheless wear various rows of beads and bracelets and bangles on their feet, and rings in their ears, and as well as rubbing ashes all over their bodies, they dye their faces in a strange fashion. Some shave their hair and wear a strip or band of little shells round their heads, and some brush their hair to the peak of their head and paint it red, and arrange it like a raised crown, some cover their head with a wig of whitish clay or an ash paste mixed with the hair. And they let one piece stick out from this wig behind, like a horn curving downwards, which really makes one laugh.
In addition to the curious ornaments they have in common with the men, except for wigs, the women decorate themselves even more; some have edged their goat or tiger skins which they wear around their flanks with iron or copper chains that they shake as they walk, like our carnival harlequins. Yet others adorn their ears with dozens of rings, embedded in the living flesh. Others wear large circles of iron wire that hang from the ear to the shoulder, and some poke an iron wire through the upper lip so that it sticks out on both sides half a hand’s breadth or more, and decorate it with small blue glass beads so that when they speak this long turquoise wire goes up and down as they move their lips. Imagine other even stranger eccentricities which are too dreadful to describe to you; they seem, these women, souls in purgatory or still worse.
But that’s enough because you will be as tired of hearing as I am of describing. Once we had passed the tribe of the Nuer and entered that of the Kich, we stopped at 7° Latitude North from where I write. From our observations we have discovered that the language most extensively known is that of the Dinka, which is spoken not only by the Dinka but by many other tribes of Central Africa such as the Nuer, Kich, Tuit, Eliab, Arol, Jok, etc. This is why we are stopping here at Holy Cross where there is a Missionary from Khartoum and, here with him, we shall try to learn from the natives’ lips the language of the Dinka, while at the same time we will do a bit of exploring. Then we will go to the tribe that seems to us to be the most suitable, to plant the Cross of Christ.
I hope that you will be in excellent health, as we all are. I greet you on behalf of all my companions, and especially Fr Oliboni. In the evening I sometimes go with him into the forest, in search of lichens for the distinguished Professor Massalongo. This occupation makes a change for us after our daily efforts. I must tell you that the precious memorandum you left me of the medicine of Bucsan has been most useful, and I use it often; and I can’t use it without being flooded with affectionate thoughts of my friend Benedettino and his friendly family.
Farewell, dear friend. I had a thousand things to tell you, but exhaustion is making me forget them. Then it costs me rather an effort to write, because here there are no tables or chairs, nor the desks you have; but it is necessary to settle on the ground, at the foot of a tree or when possible and when there is light, a case makes our most comfortable desk. Therefore forgive me all these difficulties which will make it hard to read this letter.
Put on your spectacles, and be careful not to start reading this page without having beside you, as a stomatic to strengthen you, one of those little daisies which you waved around last year after the procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, to honour the presence of the excellent Professor Massalongo and the likeable Fr Bortolo. Enough. My greetings to you all, and remember that I never cease to be

Your most affectionate

Fr Daniel Comboni

N.B. With this letter I did not mean to give you an extensive account of my journey on the White Nile and to mention everything we saw. That would indeed take rather long. I only meant to give you an idea of them. I say nothing about the tribes where we are because I am waiting to have some experience of what this place is like; then I will give heavier information on these beastly customs. Moreover, until now you have not followed me in thought into Central Africa, except as a simple traveller. From this point you will see me as a Missionary, and you will hear news, I hope, worthy of a Missionary. Farewell, my dearest friend. As a doctor you will like to know what are the main diseases in the land cursed by the father of Ham. For now I do not express my judgement, because so far it contradicts the other travellers.
They say that in Africa there are only fevers, dysentery, and scurvy. Poor things! Even in Europe there are nothing but fevers. In fact consumptives die of fever, those who have pericarditis die of fever, those with hepatitis die of fever, because a fever accompanies these diseases. But what are the causes of this fever? Of course they are tuberculosis, hepatitis, etc. So you will understand my sentiments, but, as I said, I shall wait until I have more experience to form an opinion, and I will express it if God grants me life. Please give Fr Battistino, Fr Bortolo, Prof.Massalongo and everyone lots of greetings, and I remain

Your affectionate Fr Daniel
Apostolic Missionary

Please give my distinguished respects to Signora Marietta, Signora Angelina, and Signor Giovanni Horetzki.

(1) I repeated inadvertently, because I wrote this part today 16/3…

Dr. Benedetto Patuzzi
Kich tribe
27. 3.1858
ACR, A, c. 15/89

My dearest friend!

From the Kich tribe, 27 March 1858
When I wrote you the enclosed letter, we were all in the most prosperous health. Who could ever have imagined that the one who was perhaps the most robust of us all could, in just a few days, go missing from among the living, and leave us in our grief? Fr Francesco Oliboni who, just a few days ago, ordered me to send you his greetings, came down with a very strong attack of an old gastric illness complicated by a considerable inflammation of the chest; the two ailments gave him a malignant miliaria fever and he expired in God’s embrace, resigned and joyful, yesterday evening at 5 o’clock. We most of all feel the burden of this loss because he was of great help to our mission.
But the Lord be blessed a thousand times. Far from losing courage on this account, we shall spare no toil or efforts to co-operate in the conversion of Africa and to carry out our Superior’s great plan, which is the most suitable means to draw these people out of darkness and the shadows of death, over whose head still hangs the curse brought down by the oldest of the Patriarchs on the sons of Ham, even if these measures need to be examined in the field.
Anyway I imagine there will be gossip in Verona about the death of our confrere Fr Francesco. It would have been so much better, they will say, if he had remained a teacher earning 700 florins a year instead of going off to Central Africa and losing his life. And who knows how much more they will say. But the world will indulge in idle chatter. After things have happened they talk about what should have been done before. Yes, that’s a fine way to talk. But we reason in a completely different way.
God, who rules over man’s fortune, called him to Africa and wanted him to do nothing here for the Mission. He thought about it for over 10 years, he sought advice, etc, etc. and he departed from this world with a smile on his lips and with joy in his heart, thanking heaven for having made him worthy to die for Christ. The Lord be blessed forever.
I would have many more things to tell you about, but the death of our Fr Checco has given me a greater burden to shoulder, and I bear it gladly, and you will have excused me for this, thinking that my spirit being also somewhat disturbed at the moment, they have slipped my mind. The first of us to fall ill was myself, in the Shilluk tribe on the boat, and it was a burning fever: but God willed me to be free of it. The second was Fr Francesco and he died; the third was Fr Beltrame and he is now well; the 4th, Isidoro, our craftsman, and he is now convalescing. So all of us have been hit by the African climate: but blessed be God. You, I hope, are well; and also your family, and the kind Signora Annetta.
I had intended to write to the excellent Fr Bortolo; but for the time being I cannot: so please give him my regards. When you write to me do not stamp the letters, because our Procurator has to pay for them just the same in Khartoum. I am not having mine stamped either, because you will certainly have to pay for them in any case. So we are agreed, write to me, often, possibly if the Lord so inspires you, each time a ship sails, which they do from Trieste on the 10th and 27th of each month. Farewell dear friend and believe that I remain always

Your most affectionate friend

Fr Daniel Comboni

Fr. Serafino OFM
Kich tribe
27. 3.1858
ACR, A, c. 15/40

Dearest Fr Pietro!

From the Kich tribe,

27/3 1858
When I wrote you the enclosed letter, we were all in the most robust health. Who could ever have thought that the one who was the most robust of us all could have died yesterday? Fr Francesco Oliboni, who for ten years had longed to reach this blessed Africa, was the victim of the first fever he contracted. Blessed be the Lord forever: he died with the greatest resignation, with that joy which smiles on the face of those who are about to be received at the wedding feast in Paradise. I was the first to be smitten by the fever, but with heaven’s help, and with the preventive method I have already overcome it three times.
The 2nd was Fr Oliboni; the 3rd Fr Beltrame, and I fear he may have to put up with the fever for a few months: he had already got used to it. The 4th is our craftsman, and he is now convalescing. Blessed be the Lord. I would like news of how things stand with you. May the Lord make you prosper, bless you and bless your beloved flock. With those wishes I remain

Your most affectionate friend

Fr Daniel

His father
Kich tribe
29. 3.1858
N. 38 (36) – TO HIS FATHER

Dearest Father!

From the Kich tribe in Central Africa

29 March 1858
Until the 26th of this month, I always stated truthfully to everyone I wrote to in Europe, that we were all enjoying the most perfect health, and we were already thanking heaven for this. Now I must change the scene and use a different language, because the Lord, God of mercies, has truly begun to treat us as his servants and apostles. Oh! Blessed be the Lord forever.
I pass over the fact that I was the first to be smitten by the terrible African fever in the land of the Shilluk, while I was on the boat; and after six days I was cured; and that Fr Giovanni and the blacksmith Isidoro also caught it and safely recovered from it: and we were fortunate, for many Central African Missionaries of the Society of Mary perished at the first bout of fever, which is generally the most fatal. But it pleased God to visit us more closely.
Do not be afraid, dear father: the beautiful soul of Fr Francesco Oliboni has ascended to unite itself with his God, for whom he had abandoned his father, one of the most noted teaching positions in the Liceo of Verona and his homeland. The Lord be blessed forever. On the evening of the 19th, which is dedicated to St Joseph, he had a headache and an unusual ailment in his stomach; he thought little of it and did not want to take anything but a little magnesia and tamarind. On the 20th, feeling no relief at all, he was forced to take some castor oil, after which he felt cured. But I did not like his pulse at all, nor his breathing. Already on the 19th he felt he was absolutely bound to die; and he had put all his things and his work in order as though he were going to die the next day. On the 22nd he had a most terrible fever, which took him to the brink, and seeing that his illness was getting worse, he asked for the Holy Sacraments.
He had already been to confession and received communion that same morning. Before receiving Extreme Unction, however, he called us all to his little angareb (a sort of bed) and with the eloquence that came naturally to him, and the strength and vehemence God’s spirit gave him as he was about to die, he gave us a talk; a recommendation to remain determined and strong in the great undertaking, to carry out the Superior’s great plan, to love the Superior by not failing in his plans for the glory of God, not to spare any toil for the redemption of souls for heaven, etc., etc.
Goodbye! He said, we shall not see each other on earth any more, but I shall be united with you in spirit, I shall pray to God for you, for our Mission and we shall be indivisible brothers in the spirit; Goodbye! Then he intrepidly said the responses to the prayers of the Church, and received the holy oil, after which in about two hours the fever gradually subsided and he felt quite better. He had never had a blood-letting in his life and therefore never yielded to our entreaties to have his blood let, in the belief that it would kill him. No sooner was he taken ill on 22nd March, than he asked for one himself, but he first wanted to receive extreme unction. Knowing that for some time he had been suffering from a mild inflammation of the chest, which he had picked up especially from the discomfort of the journey, as well as having suffered from a gastric complaint for many years, I agreed, although it was a bit late. Immediately after the extreme unction, I gave him the first blood-letting, after which his fever stopped and the following morning I gave him a second one.
On the 23rd he was quite well, and we could not persuade ourselves that he was about to die. Yet for some reason he insisted: but I am definitely going to die. On the 24th he had a worse fever than on the 22nd, and in the evening we gave him the Papal blessing, after which he felt better, but the fever did not cease, indeed it broke into miliary fever, which I tried to alleviate by all the means in the art of medicine; but the patient continued to alternate between feeling better and worse until the morning of the 26th, when he was overcome by every possible ailment. Yet how could I bring him any relief here and reduce his burning, as there is no ice, which alone would have helped to control the miliaria?
But God was calling him into his presence. We sorrowfully began to give him up to God even though his loss was most harmful to us, since the great undertaking entrusted to us by God now has to rest on the feeble shoulders of just three: but God can do everything, may he be blessed. As his illness increased at midday, while all three of us assisted him, he subsided into delirium, which lasted about two hours. He was then in his last agony and in the presence of all three of us, after we had given him a thousand comforts, shed a thousand tears, he died in God’s embrace at 5 in the afternoon on 26th March at the age of 33, less three days.
Perfect resignation, lively faith, admirable devotion, ardent longing to be united indivisibly with his God, those were the feelings and emotions with which he prepared himself for the final passage. Anyone who knew him in his lifetime, anyone who knows how many gifts and virtues he had in the Spirit, can imagine what a sorrow and what an impairment his loss has been for us. Yet may God’s will be done forever!
He used to hardly ever sleep, only three hours a night, the rest of which he would spend in prayer and meditation. He fasted stringently, crossing the entire Nubian desert drinking only a coffee without sugar in the morning and just eating dinner in the evening, without any other water or food of any kind. Apart from his own Divine Office, every day he recited the Penitential Psalms, the Gradual Psalms and the office of the day’s feast, not to mention the rest of the community prayers he said with us. He was the most peaceful of us, always meek, always gentle, in fact he was a saint. Indeed it was his fortune to die as J.C. was born, in a stable, because when we reached the tribe of the Kich we were given nothing more than a stable used for cattle where all five of usstayed from 18th February to 26th March.
On the morning of the 27th Fr Angelo and myself washed him and dressed him, put him in the coffin and nailed it down. After the funeral rites we took him to the grave we had ordered to be dug in the nearby forest and, having written a brief biography, we placed it in a well sealed bottle and putting this one into another larger one also well sealed, we buried him, placing a Cross on the grave. A few nights later a hyena dug down to the coffin twice to try and devour him; but the coffin being very hard it could do nothing. Our brother, then, has died, dearest father. Yet his death, far from frightening us, inspires us to be more courageous in holding firm in our great enterprise.
Do not doubt, dear father, that I have become a Missionary to labour for the glory of God and to spend my life for the good of souls. Even if I saw all my fellow missionaries fall, unless prudence or other reasons advised me to the contrary, I would hold fast and make every effort to carry out the great plan of our Superior. I promise you, furthermore, and this is a rule for us Missionaries, that should we become aware that it is beyond our physical resources to withstand these climatic conditions, we will return with some urgency to work in our home districts. But let the Lord decide. In the meantime rejoice, do not fear; one victim among the four of us was foreseen: may God’s will be done.
We sent for the chief of the Tuit tribe in order to have another go at him and probe him about establishing ourselves in his tribe. We offered him gifts and he answered that we could go to his tribe whenever we wanted and enter all the huts except for his own. And why, we asked, do you not want us to enter yours? Because, he replied, in mine there is a spirit which devours men. We will chase it out, we rejoined. Impossible, said he, it devours everything. We shall see. Since we reached the Kich, I have begun to practise medicine; and do you know the compliments I receive from these people? As soon as they have drunk the medicine, these blacks take my hands and spit into them, then gently and graciously they spit all over my shoulders and my arms. When I once refused, a woman stared fixedly into my face and looked as though she wanted to eat me. This spitting is a sign of most ardent gratitude on the part of these people. There is an enormous quantity of mosquitoes in these parts, which torment us greatly, but this will be worse in the rainy season. It is an amazing thing to see the damage termites can do here. Ahut cannot last more than a year, because it gets destroyed by termites. The first day we placed our trunks in the hut, they were immediately covered with termites and had it not been for our diligence in destroying their nests in the wood, by now they would have devoured our trunks. Let me just tell you that in the entire plains of the Kich, over 400 miles, there are earth mounds as big as the room you sleep in formed by termites, and there are hundreds of thousands of these and more because they are at every ten paces.
As for this tribe, I can only say that it is extremely timorous, indolent and bizarre; their plains have fertile land which, in the hands of a European farm, could be an earthly paradise, but only thorns grow there because the inhabitants do not cultivate them. Instead, the Kich are content with suffering indescribable hunger rather than do any work. The herds of cows belong to just a few owners. They, the Kich, that is, live off the fruits of trees which are much rougher than our own blackberries. In this heat they spend three or four days without eating and then they stuff themselves with these fruits and with the odd food they have stolen. You see to what poverty those who have not been enlightened by the faith are reduced. So we constantly see these people doing nothing, with their spears in their hands. There is also a large quantity of spiders and scorpions in these parts. Indeed, the day Fr Francesco died, a scorpion fell on me from the ceiling and gave me a mighty sting on the finger. I took a lancet, cut open the place where I had been stung by the scorpion, applied ammonia and was cured in ten minutes. I must also tell you that I, who like milk so much, am only able to drink some on rare occasions because the thousands of cows that live here can barely feed their calves, which continue suckling for a year and a half. The reason for this, I say, is the scarcity of grass. There are thorns everywhere and that is what they feed the cows on.
Here in Central Africa the storms and gales are stupendous. These storms which form all of a sudden are so terrible that they flatten huts, trees, etc. Cylindrical vortices of dust also appear in the air, swirling rapidly. Enough though. Dear father, pray the Lord for me, and for us; God will certainly give you his blessing. You know that the Lord only rewards those who serve him. You are his servant because you have embraced the Cross. Embrace it, hug it to your bosom, kiss it because it is the most precious treasure. For the rest, be joyful, calm and enjoy yourself. Indeed, I absolutely want you to continue playing, because when I return to Verona, if I do not die, I want to hear you play.
There were five attacks of fever I had to get over, which, to tell you the truth, were rather unpleasant: but may God’s will be done. So I warn you to be of good cheer even though It may be very long before I can send another letter for the lack of opportunity. Perhaps I will find one if some Nubian boat passes this way, but I may not. So let the Lord decide. I read the letters you have written me since the beginning to raise my spirits and you must read my old ones so it will seem as if you had just received them.
I am extremely pleased that you felt so much joy that I had visited the Holy Land. Oh! I too, dear father, constantly call to mind that land of mysteries and in my thoughts repeatedly go over those sites; and especially now that it is Holy Week, I have in my mind’s eye the place of the mysteries of Jesus Christ’s passion.
I can only say that there are no words to express the emotion one feels at retracing one’s step in this land made holy by the presence of the Redeemer! But enough, dear father. Goodbye! Always be happy, think of me, for I think of you and of the sacrifice you have made. Read the letters I am sending and then seal them and forward them to their destination. So as not […] burden you with the expense of the mail, I have sent many letters to Verona, from where you will receive them.
I sent them to Signora Rosina Faccioli at Cittadella in Verona who can pay and pays willingly. The rest I sent to you and I am sorry the envelope is too fat. But may God’s will be done. Goodbye, dearest father. Give my greetings to all relatives and friends, and my respects to the Consigliere, the Economo Spirituale, etc., etc. and while I send you both my holy blessing I also send a thousand loving kisses

Your most affectionate son

Fr Daniel Comboni

Apostolic Missionary in Central Africa

N.B. I inform you that the three of us are in excellent good health and hope to remain so in future because the rains have already started. So far you have seen your son as a mere traveller, henceforth you will see him as a missionary and he will send you continuous news about our mission. Goodbye.

His father
Kich tribe
N. 39 (37) – TO HIS FATHER

My gentle and most beloved Father!

From the Kich tribe,

20 November 1858
Seven months have already passed without my having been able to write or send you a line, given that the south winds prevented the Khartoum traders’ boats from penetrating the dense barriers of thick woods which divide the towns of the Egyptian kingdom in Nubia from the tribes of blacks in the midst of whom we dwell. Finally, a steamer which had left Cairo in 1857 when we were still in Alexandria, commanded by Monsieur Lafarque, a French ivory trader who, by negotiating the famous waters of the White River for the first time, brought us a great bundle of letters from Europe among which were your most dear letters telling me of the death of my dear mother…
Ah! Is my mother then no longer alive?…Has inexorable death then cut the thread of my good mother’s days?… Are you then quite alone now, you who once saw all around you the happy company of seven children, cherished and loved by the one whom God chose to be your inseparable companion for life?… Yes, by the mercy of God it is so indeed. Blessed forever be the God who wished it so. Blessed be the provident hand which has deigned to visit us in this world of exile and of tears.
Oh! My dearest father! In what words can we give thanks to the divine mercy which, despite our unworthiness, deigns to rest with us, to visit us, to regale us with good things?… I was greatly consoled when I read your Christian resignation to the divine will, which has wished to separate you from all that was your happiness in this world. I know that at times the weakness of human nature will make you succumb beneath the burden of a great sadness. I also know that the grace of our Lord, the precious assistance of the Immaculate Virgin and the efficient words of the compassionate souls who have true affection for you will raise you up to the noblest thoughts and enable you to praise and bless the hand which in its goodness has deigned to visit us.
Thanks be to the Most High, then, that your thoughts and mine may be thus at one! It was God who gave us that good mother and wife. It is God who has taken her away from us. Let us therefore offer her as a generous sacrifice to the Lord and rejoice greatly that God has called her to himself to give her the well-deserved reward for those sorrows and sufferings that she bore during her life. We can rejoice too because he compassionately wanted to give us a happy opportunity to suffer something for his love. Yes, my dearest father, the days of her tears on this earth are over. Now at last she has the glory of heaven, sharing with her six children the joy of a Paradise that will never end. There she awaits our coming, when we have won the struggle of this passing pilgrimage, to be united with them.
I exult with joy because she is closer to me than ever; and you too rejoice, because the Lord wants to hear the fervent wishes of our dear ones who are now praying for our salvation before the throne of God. Let us both rejoice, and almost be mutually proud, because God in his infinite mercy seems to have deigned to make us feel and to show us the infallible signs of the love he has for his frail children, and has predestined us for glory. We are supremely fortunate because God is offering us a chance, and is kindly supplying us with appropriate means and opportunities, to suffer for his love.
That is the way it is. Just look at the pattern of Providence, the way God approaches his faithful servants whom he predestines for eternal happiness. The Church of Christ on earth began, grew and developed through the massacre and sacrifice of its children, through persecutions and through the shedding of its Martyrs’ and Pontiffs’ blood. Its very Head and Founder, J.C., died on a vile scaffold, a victim of a cruel and wicked nation’s fury. His Apostles met with the same fate as their Divine Master.
All the Missions through which the faith has spread were established, grew and became gigantic in the world through the fury of princes, through executions and persecutions which destroyed the faithful. You do not read of a single saint who did not experience a life of thorns, trials and adversity. Even among the righteous souls we know, there isn’t a single one who is not tried, afflicted or despised. Oh the palm of heaven cannot be gained without pain, affliction and sacrifice; and those who are visited with this fortune of celestial favours can rightly call themselves happy on this earth for they are blessed with the happiness of saints for whom it was a supreme delight to suffer great things for the glory of Christ.
These special favours, these sublime prerogatives God is pleased to bestow upon his servants, to distinguish them from the innumerable multitude of the children of the world who apply themselves to creating their full happiness on earth, in his mercy, God has had pleasure in bestowing these favours and prerogatives upon us too. But we are not worthy, O dearest father, of so many gifts. We are not worthy of suffering something for the love of Christ.
But God, who is the Lord of all things, has wanted to reward us beyond any merit we may have. Take courage then, most beloved father, for today we are in the battlefield in the midst of the armies of this wretched world, for today we are assailed by our most tremendous and furious enemies: human wretchedness is seeking to induce us to quest for perishable happiness on earth while we, fighting like heroes, must embrace with a generous spirit adversity, suffering and desolation.
Human wretchedness is striving to deprive us of our peace of mind and hope for a better life, yet we, standing beside Jesus crucified and suffering for us, rejoice in the midst of adverse fortune, keeping this precious peace intact, which can be found only at the foot of the cross by a true servant of God. We are in the battlefield, I tell you, and we must fight bravely. Great prizes and triumphs cannot be reached other than through great toil, trials and suffering. Therefore, let the greatness of the prize that awaits us in heaven be our spur and consolation. Let us not be daunted or frightened by the size or the difficulty of the struggle.
We have Christ himself by our side, fighting and suffering for us and with us. With the company and help of such a generous and powerful Captain and Lord, we shall not only be able to face the trials and suffering the Lord sends us, but we shall eternally be asking him for greater ones because it is only through these, and by being spurned by the whole world, that we can attain the precious laurels of Heaven.
Take heart, I shall not cease to repeat, for we have little time left to live, for the flattering and vain scene of this world will soon fade from our eyes and we are about to enter the endless scene of eternity that awaits us. To confirm what I say to you now, here are three sayings of saints with which I want to convince you that we are fortunate on this earth especially when God requires us to bring to our lips the chalice of adversity and tribulations.
St Augustine states that suffering great things for J.C. and being tried in this life is a sign of one’s being predestined for the glory of the Blessed: “Coniectura est, cum te Deus immensis persecutionibus corripit, te in electorum suorum numerum destinasse.”
Chrysostom asserts that it is a really supreme grace to be deigned worthy to suffer something for Christ. It is a truly perfect crown, and it is no less a mercy than the mercy of Heaven itself: “est gratia vere maxima dignum censeri propter Christum aliquid pati: est corona vere perfecta, et merces futura retributione non minor.”
St Peter of Alcantara, after spending his entire life in the throes of tribulations and pain, a few days after he died in the Lord’s embrace, appeared to St Teresa in Spain and spoke to her thus: Oh happy penance, O sweet sufferings and trials, you have earned me so much glory: “O felix poenitentia, quae tantam mihi promeruit gloriam!” That is what God’s children say; that’s what being true followers of Christ means.
Let us see it in this way too. Let us throw ourselves into the loving arms of divine Providence and let us fight valiantly to the death in the shadow of the banner of the Cross, and the precious crown of eternal reward will be ours.
As I write I am in perfect health. From 6th April until mid-August the Lord deigned to visit me with raging and long fevers which exhausted my strength in the extreme, but after mid-August I recovered to such an extent that, in September, I was able to undertake a journey to the Gogh inland to the west of the White Nile. The day after I received the letters from Europe, on the 14th of this month that is, I was assailed by the strongest of fevers which lasted 5 continuous days, and I thought it appropriate to ensure the salvation of my soul.
But once again, God was not calling me to his side. The same thing happened to our dearest Fr Angelo. Fr Beltrame our Superior, on the other hand, apart from a few light fevers at the beginning of the rainy season, has been in fine fettle. Blessed be the Lord. Now we are all really well and ready to work with the help of divine grace for the glory of Christ.
I would have many things to tell you about these parts, about what we have done and intend to do in the future, but I will write about this when things are quieter, when our occupations allow me to do so. For now, let me tell you that, five Missionaries having died in just four months, including the Pro-Vicar Apostolic Fr Ignatius Knoblecher and Fr Joseph Gostner, President of the Khartoum mission, those whose deaths have greatly thinned the ranks of the pastoral agents in these missions, some and perhaps all of us must go to Khartoum in these circumstances because the Mission now rests on the shoulders of our Procurator, Fr Alessandro.
Another death was that of our blacksmith whom we had brought with us from Verona. Blessed be the Lord. Have no fear. Our lives are in God’s hands. Let him do with them what he wills: we have irrevocably sacrificed them to him. May he be blessed. People here die overnight. There is not even the time to prepare for death; we must always be prepared. In just a few hours a fever can completely debilitate one and bring one to the brink of death. So pray for us, that we may always be in God’s grace, ready to die at any moment.
On the 13th of this month I received all the letters you and mother sent me from December of last year until 7th August of this year. I received two more letters from the parish priest of Voltino, one from Antonio Risatti, one from the Caporale, etc. and a kind note from Signor Pietro Ragusini, all of which are most dear to me. Give them all my heartfelt greetings; when I have the time I will write to them all. Fr Giovanni and Fr Angelo have asked me to give you their warmest regards; we often speak of you.
Oh! The luck you have to be able to suffer for Christ is truly enviable! Give my regards and respects to the Patuzzi family, Fr Bem, and especially Signor Luigi, Signor Beppo, my friend Antonio Risatti, the Doctor Signor Candido, kind Signor Pietro and his uncle Signor Bortolo Carboni, Checco and Barbara Rambottini whom I always remember with pleasure, the painter, Signor Consigliere and his family from whom I received a letter, the Archpriest of Tremosine, Fr Luigi, parish priest of Voltino, whom I shall certainly write to, Signora Mariana Perini, Bettanini di Bassenaga, the gardeners at Tesolo and Supino, SignoraMinica and her daughters, the good families of Pietro Roensa, Carlo, Signor Vincenzo Carettoni, Fr Pietro Grana, our relatives in Limone on mother’s side, and in Maderno, the famous Caporale, to whom Fr Angelo also sends regards, etc., etc. the Salsani, etc., etc.
Goodbye, dearest father. The Lord be with you forever. Such are the wishes of the one who loves you, and with these sighs, an affectionate embrace and a thousand loving kisses, I remain

Your affectionate, grateful and poorest

Fr Daniel Comboni, Servant of Negroes

in poor Central Africa

N.B. May it not displease you to receive the two holy cards enclosed to remind you of me. With these I have consecrated you to the Patron and Queen of Africa, the Immaculate Virgin Mary. In her hands you are better off than if you were seated on the throne of a great empire. May she comfort you forever. Please give the other black saint I enclose to Uncle Giuseppe. I inform you that I have celebrated 56 Masses for you and poor mother, that will serve your souls and, as I had a feeling that mother had died, beginning on 17th July I said 17 Masses especially for her, for which I am now pleased. The day after the letters arrived from Europe Fr Giovanni wanted us all to celebrate Mass for mother’s soul. Leave it to me to load her with Masses in future, whenever we can celebrate. However, I apply them for her on condition that she actually needs them, otherwise I apply them for you and our deceased relatives. She is in heaven and is praying for us. Goodbye, a thousand times goodbye in the name of J.C.
As for those who are longing to print our reports, as I gathered from a few letters that have reached me, this is pointless, since our Institute has so far printed anything we have written that is of any importance.
When the right opportunity arises we shall send the Institute an elephant’s tusk. They are the largest animals that have ever been seen. The elephant that had this tooth was killed among the Gogh, where Fr Giovanni and I made a trip last September. The tusk weighs 121 rotoli, which is equivalent to more than 6 Brescian pesi. Oh! The animals and wild life that can be seen here! Signor Ventura Girardi would certainly be in the seventh heaven in this wilderness, he who even dreams of birds and wildfowl at night. But enough.
N.B. I leave you with one more word to remember. It is the famous and true saying of Christ’s. Meditate well upon it and keep it always in mind, for it is indeed worthy of our veneration. This is it: BEATI QUI LUGENT: and it means: Blessed are those who mourn.
Eustachio Comboni
Kich tribe

My most beloved cousin!

From the tribe of the Kich,

24 November 1858
My dearest Eustachio! I have no mother!… Once she was with me, but now I have her no more… Blessed be the Lord of mercies who has been pleased to remember me!… Yes, with a resolute step I turned my back on the world, with the purpose of assuring the salvation of my soul by consecrating myself to a state of life very similar to that of Christ and the Apostles. Yes, I have by divine grace conquered nature, separating myself from all that was dearest to me in the world to serve the Lord more freely. Yet nonetheless I feel most deeply the wounds of my fragile nature and I have wept bitterly over my great loss.
But may the Lord be ever blessed! He has wished it so: I humbly adore his divine decrees. It has pleased him to call my poor mother, whom I remember with such love and who bore much suffering and sacrifice on my account. It has also pleased God to leave my father in sorrowful solitude, and though he is resigned to the divine will his great sensitivity carries and drags him into a deep melancholy.
But God wishes it so. Blessed be God. This distresses me greatly: the loss of my mother, the loneliness of my father. But I must shake myself from this lethargy and look on high, for man is not made for this world. At this sweet thought, my dear Eustachio, all trace of anxiety fades away and my spirit is filled with inexpressible happiness.
Yes, I thank the Lord who has visited me and my father. Did I not indeed abandon the world to serve the Lord? Did my father not give his generous consent with the single purpose of obeying God’s will, thus acquiring a renewed opportunity to sacrifice his spirit to God to save his soul? Is the straightest and safest way to save one’s soul not to suffer trials and tribulations, to deny one’s self, sacrificing all one’s heart’s desires to God?
Yes, my dear cousin, that powerful statement by our Saviour: Quid prodest homini etc. “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life and then loses his soul? And if he loses it, what can a man give in exchange, to get it back?…” that powerful remark, I say, which has conquered so many souls that had previously been fettered by the things of the world, which has saved from eternal death so many worshippers of worldly goods and riches; that sentence, I repeat, which has changed the hearts of so many people who had wanted to build their happiness on earth, which has won so many souls over to the Cross, this statement pronounced by the infallible eternal truth, dressed in the miserable rags of human nature to show us the way to heaven, is the one that gives my spirit courage, lifting it above the things of this earth. It fills my soul with the desire for new adversities because I am so convinced that these are the very best means to triumph over the world and win God.
So blessed be the hand that cleanses us in the crucible of mortification, of the calamities and tribulations of this wretched life, which in the end is nothing but a breath which soon dissipates. I have but a short time left to live and so does my father; and if you don’t mind my saying so, so do you. We are getting old and we shall soon have to account for the talents the Lord gave us. All my trust is therefore in God, who sees everything, who can do anything and who loves us.
However, do not think that because I bring everything back to God I do not appreciate the cares and concerns of man and what he does for the love of God. The Lord makes use of men as secondary agents in the achievement of his divine plans. Yes, you too, dearest cousin, and your family are being used by the Lord to console my Father’s desolate soul.
Oh! What affectionate feelings I felt for you and the family when I understood from my father’s letters all the loving gestures you showed him at the most critical moments of my and his loss, which…

[The letter is incomplete].