The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 12: In the Acholi Country. Attacked in an Ambuscade.

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Winwood Reade's Ox and Hammock Train

The horses were sent with Frank, as they would be of no use in the steamboat journey, and it was arranged that they should be at Murchison Falls in exactly a month from the date of departure from Afuddo, if everything went well. Captain Mohammed said a month would suffice for the journey, if they had no detentions on the road. To cover contingencies, an allowance of eight days was added to the above period, so that it was agreed to meet on the thirty-eighth day, unless prevented by some unforeseen circumstance.

Fred had wondered how the Doctor and himself would return to Afuddo from their day's journey with Frank. The horses were to leave them, and he saw no alternative but a pedestrian journey, to which he was not at all inclined. Satisfied that Doctor Bronson had considered the case, and made proper provision for it, he asked no questions, though he could not help revolving the subject in mind.

The morning of their departure for the return to Afuddo solved the mystery.

A large ox, with wide horns, that suggested impalement to anyone who insulted their wearer, was led up for the Doctor, and a similar beast for the youth. The animals were saddled and bridled, the bridle passing through the cartilage of the nose, which is the weak point of the bovine race, and an excellent holding ground for a driving rein. As Fred looked at it, he remembered how he had seen fierce bulls held in check by a ring through the nose, and concluded that the Africans knew what they were about when they harnessed their saddle-oxen in this way.

"I remember now," he exclaimed, "reading about Anderson and Livingstone riding on oxen in their African journeys. Anderson says he rode one ox more than two thousand miles. He became much attached to his horned steed, and declared that he preferred the ox to the horse."

"Yes," replied the Doctor. "Oxen are not as fast as horses, but they will endure more, and keep fat where a horse would starve. Where there is plenty of food a horse is to be preferred, but in a country where the herbage is scant, and you must travel day after day and week after week, the ox is the superior animal. He is slow but sure in his movements, and will get over rough ground better than a horse. Winwood Reade says he is sulky and revengeful, but this is contrary to the testimony of other travelers. Mr. Reade had some saddle-oxen in his train, but his favorite mode of riding was by hammock, on the shoulders of porters.

"I had arranged for porters with hammocks to carry us back to Afuddo in case the oxen failed to arrive. But they are here all right, and as everything is ready, we will mount and be off."

Early in the afternoon they were once more in their camp on the banks of the Nile, and discussing the plans for departure up the river.

As Doctor Bronson had predicted, the two days of preparation were extended to four, and it was not until the fifth day that they were ready to start. All the baggage was carried on board in the evening, and the two explorers slept on deck, beneath the awnings. The cabins were too hot for comfort, and so full of mosquitoes that several smudges and a vigorous use of brooms and switches could not expel them. The deck was much more agreeable, and it was voted that, while the cabins might be useful as dressing rooms, they were undesirable for lodging places.

The steamer was off about nine o'clock in the morning, and headed against the strong current of the Nile in the direction of Lake Albert. Late in the afternoon a bend of the stream revealed the widening that betokened the entrance of the lake, and in a little while the Khedive was afloat on the waters of the lowest of the lakes that form the headwaters of the mysterious river of Egypt.

We will leave the Khedive and her passengers and return to Frank, whom we left on his southward travels a day beyond Afuddo. His journal will tell the story of his experiences.

"I had a sad heart all day after parting from my friends," said the youth in his notebook, "and was unable to see much beauty in the landscape. The country was well but not richly timbered, and I observed that the road ascended steadily as we moved away from the river. We passed many villages, all of the same general appearance, and I began to be weary of the succession of grass-thatched huts. The people looked at us indifferently, and sometimes came out to beg or try to sell us some of the products of their little fields. They did not display any hostility, but Abdul said we were not yet in the country where we might look for opposition.
Near the Shore of the Lake

"Our camp was made in a small valley, and close by a ravine that was easily turned into a cattle yard. A fence of African thorns was built across each end of the ravine, and as the sides were too steep for the cattle to climb easily, they did not climb at all. The guard around the camp was doubled, for fear of accident, and Captain Mohammed said he should have a double guard every night until we arrived at Foueira.

"There was an alarm during the night, caused by one of the guards discharging his rifle at a hyena that came near him. Everybody turned out, in expectation that a fight was on hand; but when the cause of the disturbance was explained we soon went to bed again. I thought the guard should be reprimanded for his act, but Abdul said he was commended for his watchfulness. When I heard the explanation, I thought he was right after all.

"Abdul said that a few years before, at one of the posts in the Bari country, the sentinel on duty at a certain point was found dead one morning, and the indications were that he had been strangled. His gun and all his equipment were gone, and there was no trace of the assailant. The next night another man was killed at the same place, and the third night the guard was doubled.

"Nothing happened there that night, nor was there anything worthy of note when the guard consisted of more than one man. But whenever the sentinel was alone, he was strangled, and the same thing happened at two or three points where sentinels were stationed.

"The men had orders to fire at anything suspicious, but somehow they did not seem to have suspected anything until too late.

"One night a man went on duty, and received the usual orders to fire at anything suspicious, and to stop any man that came near him.
Crossing a Small Stream

"'I shall fire at the least thing, whether suspicious or not,' was his reply. 'If I hear a leaf rustling when I think it should not do so, I shall fire, and I hope not to be punished for it.'

"The captain said he might do exactly as he liked; and with this understanding he went to his post.

"The relief had been gone nearly an hour when the report of his gun was heard. The guard immediately went to see what was the trouble. As they reached the place, they saw the soldier dragging the body of a Bari, which was partially dressed in the skin of a hyena.

"The mystery was explained. Hyenas are so common in this part of Africa that nobody pays any attention to them, and a soldier on duty would never dream of discharging his gun at one of these beasts. The Africans had taken advantage of this circumstance to kill the guards around the camp.

"The soldier said that the relief guard was not out of sight before he saw a hyena come over the crest of the hill close by and look in his direction. He thought nothing of the circumstance, as the hyenas were constantly prowling around the camp in search of food; the intruder imitated perfectly the motions of the creature, and he never suspected it was anything else.

"'They will laugh at me,' he said to himself, 'if I shoot at a hyena, and I shall be ridiculed all through the camp. The captain gave me permission to shoot in case a leaf rustled, or there was the least sound more than ordinary, and I should do so. But a hyena is so ordinary, and such a common sight around the camp, that I won't throw away a shot on him.'

"While thinking in this way he kept his eye fixed on the beast, which appeared to be circling slowly around, and moving in the direction of a bush close to his post. As he watched he thought he observed a step that was not exactly like that of a hyena. The creature was not more than twenty paces from him, and advancing very slowly, as it paused to turn with its nose every bit of offal, every stick and small stone that lay in its way, as if on the keen hunt for food, and paying no attention to the presence of the soldier.

"To make certain that there was no deception the soldier stamped on the ground with his foot and hissed loudly. The hyena darted back, as though frightened, but he soon reappeared in quest of food.

"'I'll fire, anyway,' said the soldier to himself; and when the hyena was again within about twenty paces he suddenly turned and discharged his rifle at the animal.

"The beast of prey shrieked in a very human manner, and instantly straightened out its limbs in a way still more human than its cry of agony had been. The soldier reloaded his rifle, and then went to look at the result of his shot.

"He found an athletic young African, armed only with a long knife, and a strong cord a couple of yards in length. The secret was explained.
An Attraction for a Hyena

"The African could imitate the motions of the hyena, and the animal was in the habit of coming so close to the camp that nobody gave him any attention. In this way he could get within a few feet of the soldier, and directly behind him; watching the chance to throw his cord around the sentinel's neck, he was able to strangle his victim without raising an alarm. Ever since that time the soldiers of the Egyptian service are allowed to fire at hyenas that come within twenty yards, if there is any reason to believe they are in a hostile region.

"The next night a trap was set for Mr. Hyena, in case he should come around the camp, and he fell into it. There was a report of a gun, but it was some little distance from the lines, and did not wake anybody. The hyena suffered more than anybody else.

"Abdul told me how it was managed, and certainly it was a trap that would catch any ordinary beast, unsuspicious of evil intentions on the part of his neighbors.

"A gun was placed at the foot of a tree, the butt resting on the ground, and the muzzle elevated at an angle of about forty degrees. It was loaded heavily, as nobody was expected to have his shoulder broken by the recoil, and then a piece of meat was placed on the muzzle, with a string attached and leading down to the trigger. The arrangement was such that the disturbance of the meat would discharge the gun and send the contents into anything that happened to be in front of the muzzle.

"A hyena came along during the night, and the result was very bad for him as he attempted to appropriate the meat, and fell a victim to his appetite. His head was nearly blown from his body, and he must have had it close to the muzzle of the weapon at the moment of the discharge.

"Nothing important happened on the second or the third day. We heard no more of any hostilities until the morning of the fourth day, when we reached a village, where only a few people were to be seen. There was not a woman or child present—always a bad sign in Africa.

"When the natives are bent on mischief, or expect trouble of any kind, they send their families out of sight. This is invariably the case when they meditate an attack on a camp. They come in under pretense of desiring to trade, and at a given signal the fight begins. Experienced travelers in Africa always observe the composition of a group of natives, and keep their rifles in readiness, if it consists only of men.

"Captain Mohammed ordered the soldiers to load their guns, and be very watchful during the march. Twenty rounds of cartridges were distributed to each man, and other cases of ammunition were ready to be opened if they should be wanted.

"A little before noon we came to a stream which it was necessary to cross by fording. The banks were lined with tall reeds, and Abdul remarked that it was an excellent place for an ambuscade. Hardly had he spoken before an arrow whizzed from the reeds and narrowly missed one of the men who was entering the water preparatory to wading over. Evidently there was trouble in store for us.

"Twenty soldiers were sent ahead to clear the way. They advanced slowly, as it was impossible to see any distance among the bushes, and it was quite possible for an enemy to be within a few feet of you without being discovered.

"The natives were not slow to appear, and only a few shots had been fired before a hundred human forms were visible, moving rapidly among the tall reeds. Each man carried a spear and a shield, and some had bows and arrows. Luckily, they had not yet been able to procure firearms, or they might have made our march very uncomfortable.

"The weapons of the native were no match for the Remington rifle, and in less than half an hour the space around the ford was cleared of our enemies. The worst feature of the business was the promise it made of delays, and perhaps a good deal of fighting, before we could reach the end of our journey.

"One of the natives was wounded in the foot, which prevented his running away. He fell into our hands, and the captain at once sent for an interpreter and questioned the man as to the reason of the attack.
Attack in an Ambuscade

"The African explained that his people, the Acholis, had recently suffered considerably from the slave hunters who had come to destroy their villages and carry the prisoners into slavery. Consequently, war had been declared against all men coming from Khartoum or Gondokoro under the pretense of buying ivory, and our expedition would not be likely to get to the Victoria Nile without a great deal of trouble.

"This was serious news indeed, and as soon as we reached a good place for making a camp we halted and spread the tents. We wanted a spot that could be easily defended in case of attack. In order to protect ourselves we threw up a line of thorn fences, completely enclosing the camp. There is nothing better than a fence of thorns to hold off the Africans; they wear little clothing other than an antelope skin over the shoulders, and consequently have a profound respect for the stout thorn that grows in this country, and has a point like that of a darning needle.

"Captain Mohammed decided to remain in camp until he could have an interview with the chief of the region through which we desired to pass. He thought he could convince the chief that we were his friends, as we had come to suppress slavery instead of protecting the business. The best way of coming to the negotiation would be to send for the chief and wait patiently until he came to camp. Luckily, he was not far off, and the messengers departed immediately. According to the custom of the country they carried presents, to assure him that no treachery was intended.

"I wanted to go on a hunting excursion the next day, but the captain said he would not permit it, as it would be dangerous. The natives would certainly attack me, and they had every advantage, by the facility with which they could conceal themselves in the grass or behind the trees.

"So there was nothing to do but wait and keep within our lines. Fortunately, we did not have a long delay, as the hostile chief was easily found, and came to camp a little past noon—a promptness not at all characteristic of his country. I was permitted to be present at the interview, and observed the dress and manners of the chief.

"He was a finely formed man, about fifty years old, well-built and muscular, and evidently in robust health. The Acholis are not as tall in stature as the Shilluks or Dinkas, but have better figures. Sir Samuel Baker calls the men of the tribe the best proportioned that he saw in Africa, and other travelers confirm his opinion. The women are shorter in stature, but equally muscular with the men.

"The dress of the chief consisted of an antelope skin thrown across his shoulders, and covering the lower part of his body like a scarf. This is the usual garment of the Acholis, and, as the tribe is a numerous one, and the clothing does not last long, there is a great slaughter of antelopes every year to keep up the supply. The chief's followers were clad exactly like himself; but his robe was larger and finer than the rest, and he carried a spear with a tuft of feathers at the end, the weapons of his followers being without decoration.

"They all came, to the number of twenty or more, to the tent of the captain; and as there were nearly as many of ourselves at the conference, the tent was not large enough to hold us. So we adjourned to the shade of a tree outside, where a carpet was spread for the chief, while his followers stretched upon the grass around him. Captain Mohammed, his two aids, and myself sat in camp chairs directly in front of the chief, and the interpreters and the dragoman stood near us.
Female Antelope of the Acholi Country

"The conference opened by a statement of grievances by the chief, who said that the slave dealers had plundered his villages and carried away his people, and he had determined to prevent farther intrusion if possible. To this end he had ordered that all the roads entering his territory should be guarded, and any men who ventured to come in from the north should be driven back. He was acting in accord with the tribes farther south, and also with the more powerful Kaba Rega, King of Bunyoro. War had not actually been declared; but, unless there was a certainty of better treatment by the merchants from Gondokoro, they would admit no more Egyptians, and the posts at Patiko and Foueira would be attacked.

"His story took some time in the narration, on account of the necessity of frequent pauses to allow the interpreter to translate. As soon as he had finished Captain Mohammed replied with the assurance that the Egyptians were friends of the Acholis, and the great desire of the Khedive at Cairo was to put an end to slavery and the slave trade.

"The chief was not altogether pleased with this reply, as his people have no particular objection to the slave trade, so long as it is conducted without violence, and especially when they are the gainers thereby. If they could be protected while plundering their neighbors and making prisoners to sell on their own account, they would regard slavery as a divine institution; but when the tables are turned and the Acholis are the prisoners and the merchandise, the matter has a different aspect. It reminds me of the schoolboy story of the goring of the ox.

"Captain Mohammed saw how his speech was poorly received, and therefore hastened to change it. He assured the chief that we had not come to disturb them, but to protect them from all enemies, and that as long as the power of Egypt was recognized the Acholis should not be carried into slavery.

"This was more agreeable to the views of the native, and the negotiations went on more smoothly.
Male Antelope of the Acholi Country

"Coffee was served, and the chief drank it eagerly. A second and then a third cup was handed to him, and the beverage had the effect of making him more inclined to agree. The result was that the terms of peace were arranged, and the captain and the chief became 'blood brothers.' Blood brotherhood is a peculiarity of Africa, and is described by Livingstone, Baker, and other explorers.

"The men who are to become related in this way make slight punctures in each other's arms, and then swallow a drop of the blood that flows from the wound. The ceremony is not a pleasing one to look at, and I do not care to be present a second time. It occupied only a few moments, and quite likely both parties were glad to have it over as soon as possible.

"The chief agreed to order his people to cease hostilities; but, as it would take a certain time to convey the intelligence through his country, it would be best for us to wait a couple of days where we were. The captain protested that the delay would be inconvenient, as we had a good many mouths to feed, and the consumption of provisions was serious.

"'I will show you how to get fresh provisions,' said the chief. 'There is to be a grand hunt tomorrow, and you shall see it, and have a share of the proceeds.'

"Then he told us that the hunt was to come off the next day, a few miles to the east of our camp, and he invited us to go. I was very glad he did so, as it gave me a chance to see something of which I had read in Baker's account of his expedition, as well as in the works of other travelers. The Acholis are great hunters; in fact, their country is so full of game that they have every reason to be fond of the chase."

    The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 12: In the Acholi Country. Attacked in an Ambuscade.


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Ambuscade: An ambush or a trap laid for an enemy.
Contingency: A chance occurrence, in finance leading to unanticipated expenses.
Unforeseen: An event, incident, cost, etc. that was not anticipated or predicted beforehand.
Pedestrian: Of or intended for those who are walking.
Impalement: The act of piercing something with a long, pointed object.
Herbage: Herbaceous plant growth, especially grass.
Scant: Very little, very few.
Smudge: Dense smoke, such as that used for fumigation to drive off insects.
Sentinel: A sentry or guard.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

  • Examine the chapter setting in modern times: Murchison Falls in Uganda.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

Find the following on map of the world:

  • The countries of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the applicable mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.