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By Evelyn Waugh
Read by Michael Maloney
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Black Mischief was written after a winter spent in East and Central Africa, an account of which appeared in Remote People and now survives, abridged, in When the Going was Good.
The scene of the novel was a fanciful confusion of many territories. It was natural for people to suppose that it derived from Abyssinia, at that time the sole independent native monarchy. There are certain re-semblances between Debra Dowa and the Addis Ababa of 1930. There was never the smallest resemblance between Seth and the Emperor Haile Selassie. The Arabs of Matodi never existed on the Ethiopian coast. Their model, so far as they had one, was in Zanzibar.
Thirty years ago it seemed an anachronism that any part of Africa should be independent of European administration. History has not followed what then seemed its natural course.
Combe Florey 1962
With love to Mary and Dorothy Lygon
‘We, Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University, being in this the twenty-fourth year of our life, summoned by the wisdom of Almighty God and the unanimous voice of our people to the throne of our ancestors, do hereby proclaim…’ Seth paused in his dictation and gazed out across the harbour where in the fresh breeze of early morning the last dhow was setting sail for the open sea. ‘Rats,’ he said; ‘stinking curs. They are all running away.’
The Indian secretary sat attentive, his fountain pen poised over the pad of writing paper, his eyes blinking gravely behind rimless pince-nez.
‘Is there still no news from the hills?’
‘None of unquestionable veracity, your majesty.’
‘I gave orders that the wireless was to be mended. Where is Marx? I told him to see to it.’
‘He evacuated the town late yesterday evening.’
‘He evacuated the town?’
‘In your majesty’s motor-boat. There was a large company of them — the stationmaster, the chief of police, the Armenian Archbishop, the Editor of the Azanian Courier, the American vice-consul. All the most distinguished gentlemen in Matodi.’
‘I wonder you weren’t with them yourself, Ali.’
‘There was not room. I supposed that with so many distinguished gentlemen there was danger of submersion.’
‘Your loyalty shall be rewarded. Where had I got to?’
‘The last eight words in reproof of the fugitives were an interpolation?’
‘Yes, yes, of course.’
‘I will make the erasion. Your majesty’s last words were “do hereby proclaim”.’
‘Do hereby proclaim amnesty and free pardon to all those of our subjects recently seduced from their loyalty, who shall during the eight days subsequent to this date return to their lawful allegiance. Furthermore…’
They were in the upper story of the old fort at Matodi. Here, three hundred years before, a Portuguese garrison had withstood eight months’ siege from the Omani Arabs; at this window they had watched for the sails of the relieving fleet, which came ten days too late.
Over the main door traces of an effaced escutcheon were still discernible, an idolatrous work repugnant to the prejudice of the conquerors.
For two centuries the Arabs remained masters of the coast. Behind them in the hills the native Sakuyu, black, naked, anthropophagous, had lived their own tribal life among their herds—emaciated, puny cattle with rickety shanks and elaborately branded hide. Farther away still lay the territory of the Wanda–Galla immigrants from the mainland who, long before the coming of the Arabs, had settled in the north of the island and cultivated it in irregular communal holdings. The Arabs held aloof from the affairs of both these people; war drums could often be heard inland and sometimes the whole hillside would be aflame with burning villages. On the coast a prosperous town arose: great houses of Arab merchants with intricate latticed windows and brass-studded doors, courtyards planted with dense mango trees, streets heavy with the reek of cloves and pineapple, so narrow that two mules could not pass without altercation between their drivers; a bazaar where the money changers, squatting over their scales, weighed out the coinage of a world-wide trade, Austrian thalers, rough stamped Mahratta gold, Spanish and Portuguese guineas. From Matodi the dhows sailed to the mainland, to Tanga, Dar-es-Salaam, Malindi and Kismayu, to meet the caravans coming down from the great lakes with ivory and slaves. Splendidly dressed Arab gentlemen paraded the water-front hand in hand and gossiped in the coffee houses. In early spring when the monsoon was blowing from the north-east, fleets came down from the Persian Gulf bringing to market a people of fairer skin who spoke a pure Arabic barely intelligible to the islanders, for with the passage of years their language had become full of alien words—Bantu from the mainland, Sakuyu and Galla from the interior—and the slave markets had infused a richer and darker strain into their Semitic blood; instincts of swamp and forest mingled with the austere tradition of the desert.
In one of these Muscat trading fleets came Seth’s grandfather, Amurath, a man wholly unlike his companions, a slave’s son, sturdy, bow-legged, three-quarters Negro. He had received education of a kind from Nestorian monks near Basra. At Matodi he sold his dhow and entered the Sultan’s service.
It was a critical time in local history. The white men were returning. From Bombay they had fastened on Aden. They were in Zanzibar and the Sudan. They were pushing up round the Cape and down through the Canal. Their warships were cruising the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean intercepting slavers; the caravans from Tabora were finding difficulty in getting through to the coast. Trade in Matodi was almost at a standstill and a new listlessness became apparent in the leisured life of the merchants; they spent their days in the town moodily chewing khat. They could no longer afford to keep up their villas round the bay. Gardens ran wild and roofs fell into disrepair. The grass huts of the Sakuyu began to appear on the more remote estates. Groups of Wanda and Sakuyu came into town and swaggered insolently about the bazaars; an Arab party returning from one of the country villas was ambushed and murdered within a mile of the walls. There were rumours of a general massacre, planned in the hills. The European powers watched their opportunity to proclaim a Protectorate.
In this uncertain decade there suddenly appeared the figure of Amurath; first as commander-in-chief of the Sultan’s forces, then as general of an independent army; finally as Emperor Amurath the Great. He armed the Wanda and at their head inflicted defeat after defeat on the Sakuyu, driving off their cattle, devastating their villages and hunting them down in the remote valleys of the island. Then he turned his conquering army against his old allies on the coast. In three years he proclaimed the island a single territory and himself its ruler. He changed its name. Until now it had been scored on the maps as Sakuyu Island; Amurath renamed it the Empire of Azania. He founded a new capital at Debra Dowa, two hundred miles inland on the borders of the Wanda and Sakuyu territories. It was the site of his last camp, a small village, partially burnt out. There was no road to the coast, only a faltering bush path which an experienced scout could follow. Here he set up his standard.
Presently there was a railway from Matodi to Debra Dowa. Three European companies held the concession in turn and failed; at the side of the line were the graves of two French engineers who went down with black-water, and of numerous Indian coolies. The Sakuyu would wrench up the steel sleepers to forge spear heads and pull down lengths of copper telegraph wire to adorn their women. Lions came into the labour lines at night and carried off workmen; there were mosquitoes, snakes, tsetse fly, spirillum ticks; there were deep water courses to be bridged which for a few days in the year bore a great torrent down from the hills, bundling with it timber and boulders and an occasional corpse; there was a lava field to be crossed, a great waste of pumice five miles broad; in the hot season the metal blistered the hands of workmen; during the rains landslides and washouts would obliterate the work of months. Reluctantly, step by step, barbarism retreated; the seeds of progress took root and, after years of slow growth, burst finally into flower in the single, narrow-gauge track of the Grand Chemin de Fer Impérial d’Azanie. In the sixteenth year of his reign Amurath travelled in the first train from Matodi to Debra Dowa. With him sat delegates from France, Great Britain, Italy and the United States, his daughter and heir, her husband, while, in a cattle truck behind, rode a dozen or so illegitimate children; in another coach sat the hierarchies of the various Churches of Azania; in another the Arab sheiks from the coast, the paramount chief of the Wanda, and a shrivelled, scared old Negro, with one eye, who represented the Sakuyu. The train was decked with bunting, feathers and flowers; it whistled continuously from coast to capital; levies of irregular troops lined the way; a Jewish nihilist from Berlin threw a bomb which failed to explode; sparks from the engine started several serious bush fires; at Debra Dowa Amurath received the congratulations of the civilized world and created the French contractor a Marquess in the Azanian peerage.
The first few trains caused numerous deaths among the inhabitants, who for some time did not appreciate the speed or strength of this new thing that had come to their country. Presently they became more cautious and the service less frequent. Amurath had drawn up an elaborate time-table of express trains, local trains, goods trains, boat trains, schemes for cheap return tickets and excursions; he had printed a map showing the future developments of the line in a close mesh all over the island. But the railway was the last great achievement of his life; soon after its opening he lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered consciousness; he had a wide reputation for immortality; it was three years before his ministers, in response to insistent rumours, ventured to announce his death to the people. In the succeeding years the Grand Chemin de Fer Impérial d’Azanie failed to develop on the lines adumbrated by its founder. When Seth came down from Oxford there was a weekly service; a goods train at the back of which was hitched a single shabby saloon car, upholstered in threadbare plush. It took two days to accomplish the journey, resting the night at Lumo, where a Greek hotel proprietor had proposed a contract profitable to the president of the line; the delay was officially attributed to the erratic efficacy of the engine lights and the persistence of the Sakuyu in their depredations of the permanent way.
Amurath instituted other changes, less sensational than the railway, but nevertheless noteworthy. He proclaimed the abolition of slavery and was warmly applauded in the European Press; the law was posted up prominently in the capital in English, French and Italian where every foreigner might read it; it was never promulgated in the provinces nor translated into any of the native languages; the ancient system continued unhampered but European intervention had been anticipated. His Nestorian upbringing had strengthened his hand throughout in his dealings with the white men. Now he declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire, reserving complete freedom of conscience to his Mohammedan and pagan subjects. He allowed and encouraged an influx of missionaries. There were soon three Bishops in Debra Dowa—Anglican, Catholic and Nestorian—and three substantial cathedrals. There were also Quaker, Moravian, American-Baptist, Mormon and Swedish-Lutheran missions handsomely supported by foreign subscribers. All this brought money into the new capital and enhanced his reputation abroad. But his chief safeguard against European intrusion was a force of ten thousand soldiers, maintained under arms. These he had trained by Prussian officers. Their brass bands, goosestep and elaborate uniforms were at first the object of mild amusement. Then there was an international incident. A foreign commercial agent was knifed in a disorderly house on the coast. Amurath hanged the culprits publicly in the square before the Anglican Cathedral—and with them two or three witnesses whose evidence was held to be unsatisfactory—but there was a talk of indemnities. A punitive force was landed, composed half of European, half of mainland native troops. Amurath marched out against them with his new army and drove them in hopeless rout to the seashore where they were massacred under the guns of their own fleet. Six European officers of field rank surrendered and were hanged on the battlefield. On his triumphal return to the capital Amurath offered the White Fathers a silver altar to Our Lady of Victories.
Throughout the highlands his prestige became superhuman. ‘I swear by Amurath’ was a bond of inviolable sanctity. Only the Arabs remained unimpressed. He ennobled them, creating the heads of the chief families Earls, Viscounts and Marquesses, but these grave, impoverished men whose genealogies extended to the time of the Prophet preferred their original names. He married his daughter into the house of the old Sultan—but the young man accepted the elevation and his compulsory baptism into the National Church without enthusiasm. The marriage was considered a great disgrace by the Arabs. Their fathers would not have ridden a horse with so obscure a pedigree. Indians came in great numbers and slowly absorbed the business of the country. The large houses of Matodi were turned into tenements, hotels or offices. Soon the maze of mean streets behind the bazaar became designated as the ‘Arab quarter’.
Very few of them migrated to the new capital, which was spreading out round the palace in a haphazard jumble of shops, missions, barracks, legations, bungalows and native huts. The palace itself, which occupied many acres enclosed by an irregular fortified stockade, was far from orderly or harmonious. Its nucleus was a large stucco villa of French design; all round this were scattered sheds of various sizes which served as kitchens, servants’ quarters and stables; there was a wooden guard-house and a great thatched barn which was used for state banquets; a domed, octagonal chapel and the large rubble and timber residence of the Princess and her consort. The ground between and about the buildings was uneven and untidy; stacks of fuel, kitchen refuse, derelict carriages, cannon and ammunition lay in prominent places; sometimes there would be a flyblown carcase of a donkey or camel, and after the rains pools of stagnant water; gangs of prisoners, chained neck to neck, could often be seen shovelling as though some project were on hand of levelling or draining, but except for the planting of a circle of eucalyptus trees, nothing was done in the old Emperor’s time to dignify his surroundings.
Many of Amurath’s soldiers settled round him in the new capital; in the first few years they were reinforced by a trickle of detribalized natives, drawn from their traditional grounds by the glamour of city life; the main population, however, was always cosmopolitan, and as the country’s reputation as a land of opportunity spread through the less successful classes of the outside world Debra Dowa gradually lost all evidence of national character. Indians and Armenians came first and continued to come in yearly increasing numbers. Goans, Jews and Greeks followed, and later a race of partially respectable immigrants from the greater powers, mining engineers, prospectors, planters and contractors, on their world-wide pilgrimage in quest of cheap concessions. A few were lucky and got out of the country with modest fortunes; most were disappointed and became permanent residents, hanging round the bars and bemoaning over their cups the futility of expecting justice in a land run by a pack of niggers.
When Amurath died, and the courtiers at last could devise no further explanation of his prolonged seclusion, his daughter reigned as Empress. The funeral was a great occasion in East African history. A Nestorian patriarch came from Iraq to say the Mass; delegates from the European powers rode in the procession and as the bugles of the Imperial guard sounded the last post over the empty sarcophagus, vast crowds of Wanda and Sakuyu burst into wailing and lamentation, daubed their bodies with chalk and charcoal, stamped their feet, swayed and clapped in frantic, personal grief at the loss of their master.
Now the Empress was dead and Seth had returned from Europe to claim his Empire.
Noon in Matodi. The harbour lay still as a photograph, empty save for a few fishing boats moored motionless against the sea wall. No breeze stirred the royal standard that hung over the old fort. No traffic moved on the water-front. The offices were locked and shuttered. The tables had been cleared from the hotel terrace. In the shade of a mango the two sentries lay curled asleep, their rifles in the dust beside them.
‘From Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University, to His Majesty of the King of England, Greeting. May this reach you. Peace be to your house…’
He had been dictating since dawn. Letters of greeting, Patents of Nobility, Pardons, Decrees of Attainder, Army Ordinances, police regulations, orders to European firms for motor-cars, uniforms, furniture, electric plant, invitations to the Coronation, proclamations of a public holiday in honour of his victory, lay neatly clipped together on the secretary’s table.
‘Still no news from the hills. We should have heard of the victory by now.’ The secretary recorded these words, considered them with his head cocked slightly to one side and then drew a line through them. ‘We should have heard, shouldn’t we, Ali?’
‘We should have heard.’
‘What has happened? Why don’t you answer me? Why have we heard nothing?’
‘Who am I? I know nothing. I only hear what the ignorant people are saying in the bazaar, since the public men evacuated the city. The ignorant people say that your majesty’s army has not gained the victory you predict.’
‘Fools, what do they know? What can they understand? I am Seth, grandson of Amurath. Defeat is impossible. I have been to Europe. I know. We have the Tank. This is not a war of Seth against Seyid but of Progress against Barbarism. And Progress must prevail. I have seen the great tattoo of Aldershot, the Paris Exhibition, the Oxford Union. I have read modern books—Shaw, Arlen, Priestley. What do the gossips in the bazaars know of all this? The whole might of Evolution rides behind him; at my stirrups run woman’s suffrage, vaccination and vivisection. I am the New Age. I am the Future.’
‘I know nothing of these things,’ said Ali. ‘But the ignorant men in the bazaars say that your majesty’s guards have joined Prince Seyid. You will remember my pointing out that they had received no wages for several months?’
‘They shall be paid. I have said it. As soon as the war is over they shall be paid. Besides I raised them in rank. Every man in the brigade is now a full corporal. I issued the edict myself. Ungrateful curs. Old-fashioned fools. Soon we will have no more soldiers. Tanks and aeroplanes. That is modern. I have seen it. That reminds me. Have you sent off instructions for the medals?’
Ali turned over the file of correspondence.
‘Your majesty has ordered five hundred Grand Cross of Azania, first class; five hundred second; and seven hundred third; also designs for the Star of Seth, silver gilt and enamel with parti-coloured ribbon…’
‘No, no. I mean the Victory Medal.’
‘I have received no instructions concerning the Victory Medal.’
‘Then take this down.’
‘The invitation to the King of England?’
‘The King of England can wait. Take down the instructions for the Victory Medal. Obverse, the head of Seth—that is to be copied from the photograph taken in Oxford. You understand—it is to be modern, European—top hat, spectacles, evening dress collar and tie. Inscription SETH IMPERATOR IMMORTALIS. The whole to be simple and in good taste. Many of my grandfather’s medals were florid. Reverse. The figure of Progress. She holds in one hand an aeroplane, in the other some small object symbolic of improved education. I will give you the detail of that later. The idea will come to me…a telephone might do…I will see. Meanwhile begin the letter:
‘From Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University, to Messrs Mappin and Webb of London, Greeting. May this reach you. Peace be to your house…’
Evening and a small stir of life. Muezzin in the minaret. Allah is great. There is no Allah but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. Angelus from the mission church. Ecce ancilla Domini: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Mr Youkoumian behind the bar of the Amurath Café and Universal Stores mixed himself a sundowner of mastika and water.
‘What I want to know is do I get paid for the petrol?’
‘You know I am doing all I can for you, Mr Youkoumian. I’m your friend. You know that. But the Emperor’s busy today. I’ve only just got off. Been on all day. I’ll try and get your money for you.’
‘I’ve done a lot for you, Ali.’
‘I know you have, Mr Youkoumian, and I hope I am not ungrateful. If I could get you your money just by asking for it you should have it this evening.’
‘But I must have it this evening. I’m going.’
‘I’ve made my arrangements. Well, I don’t mind telling you, Ali, since you’re a friend.’ Mr Youkoumian glanced furtively round the empty bar—they were speaking in Sakuyu—‘I’ve got a launch beached outside the harbour, behind the trees near the old sugar mill in the bay. What’s more, there’s room in it for another passenger. I wouldn’t tell this to anyone but you. Matodi’s not going to be a healthy place for the next week or two. Seth’s beaten. We know that. I’m going to my brother on the mainland. Only I want my money for the petrol before I go.’
‘Yes, Mr Youkoumian, I appreciate your offer. But you know it’s very difficult. You can hardly expect the Emperor to pay for having his own motor-boat stolen.’
‘I don’t know anything about that. All I know is that yesterday evening Mr Marx came into my store and said he wanted the Emperor’s motor-boat filled up with petrol. Eighty rupees’ worth. I’ve served Mr Marx with petrol before for the Emperor. How was I to know he wanted to steal the Emperor’s motor-boat? Should I have given it to him if I did?’
Mr Youkoumian spread his hands in the traditional gesture of his race. ‘I am a poor man. Is it right that I should suffer in this way? Is it fair? Now, Ali, I know you. You’re a just man. I’ve done a lot for you in the past. Get me my eighty rupees and I will take you to stay with my brother in Malindi. Then when the troubles are over, we can come back or stay or go somewhere else, just as we like. You don’t want your throat cut by the Arabs. I’ll look after you.’
‘Well, I appreciate your offer, Mr Youkoumian, and I’ll do what I can. I can’t say more than that.’
‘I know you, Ali. I trust you as I’d trust my own father. Not a word to anyone about the launch, eh?’
‘Not a word, Mr Youkoumian, and I’ll see you later this evening.’
‘That’s a good fellow. Au revoir and remember, not a word to anyone about the launch.’
When Ali had left the Amurath Café, Youkoumian’s wife emerged from the curtain behind which she had been listening to the conversation.
‘What’s all this you’ve been arranging? We can’t take that Indian to Malindi.’
‘I want my eighty rupees. My dear, you must leave these business matters to me.’
‘But there isn’t room for anyone else in the launch. We’re overloaded already. You know that.’
‘I know that.’
‘Are you mad, Krikor? Do you want to drown us all?’
‘You must leave these things to me, my flower. There is no need to worry. Ali is not coming with us. All I want is my eighty rupees for Mr Marx’s petrol. Have you finished your packing? We start as soon as Ali returns with the money.’
‘Krikor, you wouldn’t…you aren’t going to leave me behind, are you?’
- "Continuously funny."—New York Times
- "A hilarious and still timely tale of emerging Africa and declining England."—TIME
- "Pure, early Waugh, funny in spots, mildly satirical, wildly absurd, corrupt and erotic....Black Mischief is clever and it is entertaining."—Orville Prescott, New York Times
- "To achieve greatness, in the opinion of this devotee of the genre, satire must be rooted not only in a genuine love for the object being satirized but also in an awareness of the object's relation to the entire human condition, regardless of race, color, creed, or geography. Black Mischief, it seems to me, does this to a larger degree than any of the half-dozen near-great pieces of satire written in English in my time, all of them, by the way and by a not-so-odd coincidence, composed by the same Mr. Waugh."—Jerome Weidman, New York Herald Tribune
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- Dec 11, 2012
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