28 APRIL 1900
The glorious Southern sun blazed down on the blue waters of the Indian Ocean. We had been lying all the morning round the deck, revelling in delicious laziness. I had smoked six pipes, reviled the British Empire to three Englishmen, and played chess with an excitable Teuton, whom I conquered by a fluke, whereupon he lifted up his voice and wept. Would to God he had smote my Queen ‘mit de springer!’ I comforted him with lager beer and the assurance that I was the champion chess-player of the Celtic race. I taught the Ignorant the Kafir language, and when the Ignorant went round proudly to the Zulu cookboy and remarked, in the Kafir tongue, with a cheerful smile ‘I am an idiot of seven generations,’ the cookboy grinned, and, rubbing his sides, said ‘Yes, yes, master.’ The Ignorant discovered my perfidy, and swore by Kossuth and Gorgey and Bem—he was a magnificent Magyar—that I should die. I purchased my life from him for a cigar, and we sword eternal and unalterable friendship.
‘Whales! whales!’ We shambled to the port bulwarks and watched the sporting mammals. We, eight of us, chose a whale apiece, and agreed that he whose whale last turned a somersault should give drink to the thirsty. My accursed fish was last to lift his tail in the air, plunge beneath the waters and pop up his smiling face where erstwhile his tail has been. There was an unholy joy amongst the Saxons, whose Empire I had reviled, as they drank the health of my whale and I sadly parted with my bright silver pieces, bearing the image and superscription of Portugal’s fat king that they might be refreshed. The water grew green. ‘Ho, for Beira,’ we cried, and clustered on the upper deck.
A pilot boat came dancing over the waves, and a dark-skinned Portuguese climbed aboard, and took us under his protection. We steamed merrily into the harbour, and cast anchor off the town, while the band played the National hymn of Lusitania. Beira, built on one arms of a semi-circular sweep of marshland, lay before us. The commandant, in his gold-braided linen jacket, his tremendous epaulettes, and his magnificent blue trousers, came aboard, and shook hands with everyone he met. I felt reassured, for he carried a sabre four feet long, and had two revolvers in his belt. The port captain and the governor, and the doctor, and many other great people, went down to feast with the skipper, and we, being left in the outer darkness listening to the popping of champagne corks, commandeered a boat and dropping over the side of the vessel rowed ashore.
Beira consists of one street. Like the street of Damascus, ‘which is called Straight,’ the street of Beira is torturous, winding, and bewildering. ‘When you think you’re here you’re there,’ said a stolid Saxon to me as we wandered along the one footpath which edges it—a splendid path, by the way, raised twelve inches above the roadway, and formed of immense blocks of cement laid with beautiful evenness. The road is covered in sand, and along its centre is laid a double trolley line. The upper ten of Beira sit on the trolleys, and the Kaffirs push them along, for the climate of Beira is fatal to horse and ox and ass. Three-fourths of the houses are built of wood and corrugated iron, with tile-covered sloping roofs. The remainder are flat-roofed, stone-built Portuguese houses. The town is lighted by oil lamps, and fig trees grow along the street. The back of the town is simply marsh, and the houses and stores in it are built on piles driven into the mud. The Government house, a pretty building, is surrounded by a garden in which the flower-beds are neatly bordered by beer-bottles imbedded in the ground. A Portuguese can even make a beer-bottle into a thing of beauty.
Beira is a prosperous town. English sportsmen leave an enormous amount of money in it annually. When the average English sportsman goes out to South Africa lion hunting, he spends his days and nights in Durban and other pleasant places, and leaves the lions in peace. Then ere his return to his native soil he takes a run to Beira, and buys his lions—dead. The second day I was there, I met an English baronet who was taking home six lions and many other trophies of the chase. He paid £220 for the lot. I read an article by that mighty nimrod many months afterwards in an English magazine, in which he described how he slew his lions and his thrilling adventures in the forest and the jungle.
We walked over to view the Beira railway. En route we visited the wineshops, and drank the wine of the country—no more murderous concoction was ever faked than the vinho tinto which they sell in Beira. Black-bearded, brown-robed, sandalled priests met us everywhere, and saluted us with grave courtesy. ‘Here it is,’ shouted our advanced guard. He possessed keen sight, but for persons of ordinary vision it is impossible to discern the railway until one stands beside it. A microscopic engine with seven microscopic trucks stood on a microscopic line. Twice a week the lilliputian trains run to Umtali, 220 miles away. It takes them three days to get there. The first-class passengers ride in a truck covered by a tarpaulin; the third-class ones, I was informed by a reliable native, ride on the buffers.
It is over this line Carrington and his troops and munitions are being allowed by the Government of Portugal to pass into Rhodesia. What would have occurred to the British army had a buffalo attacked the engine I shudder to think. ‘The mall train’ was knocked clean off the line, and the carriages smashed by one three years ago. The buffalo, it is needless to add, ceased to exist. Life on the railway is indeed exciting. Driver and fireman and guard all carry rifles to protect themselves from the beasts who were accustomed at one time to dine on the railway officials. Things are better now, but the fever-fiend slays them by the score. The building of the line cost a life for every foot laid; its working costs the lives of hundreds yearly.
An Englishman and a Scot joined the ship at Beira, homeward bound. As we resumed our voyage and the sun sat idly over the town, they cursed Portugal and the Portuguese long and fiercely. With a strong, stern hand the Portuguese authorities repress the national tendency of the Britisher to play the rowdy. ‘They treat the Englishmen like dogs,’ the Scot complained to me. ‘They treat you,’ I told him him; ‘very much as you treat us in Ireland but with a hundredfold the justification.’ When the moon arose and we shot along a silvered streak of the Mozambique Channel, I heard the voices of the oppressed Britishers upraised in song, and I felt a grim delight as I listened to the refrain:
‘…Beira, Oh! Beira!
We’ll never go back any more!’