He had been told the climate was not fit for man nor beast, but he had assumed that to be an exaggeration, the man who had “been there” attempting to lord it over the man who hadn’t. Now he realized, as he followed the three sailors dragging his baggage down the gangway to the steam launch, that Peter, the cocky young graduate student who had given him that information, had understated it if anything.
Mombasa, the gateway to the East African Colonies, was a sprawling jumble of buildings, from substantial earthenware or stone, to transient straw shacks. It was ancient, he knew, its origin lost in time, but certainly having been a great city of the Arabs, with trade routes to India, the Cape, and points beyond. Everyone who had come behind had added their own architecture to the mix, until today, in the late spring of 1882, it mostly resembled a pile of masonry, at least from out here in the anchorage. The unfamiliarity of the place was intimidating, but even more frightening than that was the certain knowledge that the heat was at its most moderate out here in the bay.
Nicholas Ellsworth winced inwardly as the grumbling sailors more or less threw his field laboratory, which they took to be an outsized steamer trunk, onto the stern of the launch, then stood around as if waiting for a tip. Ellsworth wasn’t having it. His admonitions to handle the irreplaceable equipment with care had been met with curses, and, he was willing to swear, a conscious effort to be even rougher in its treatment. He stood back against the ship until the men passed him with threatening looks and climbed back to the deck of the side wheeler, then hopped lightly across onto the launch, last of the twenty-odd passengers disembarking here.
“All aboard! Don’t fall off!” the dark-skinned, but not fully African pilot called good naturedly, and blew the whistle as the sailor on the float tossed his line onto the launch. He eased the beamy boat forward until it was clear of the float, then applied power, the craft responding smartly to its propeller.
“We be in Mombasa, ten minutes,” one of the crewmen addressed the group of newcomers. “Man from Governor’s House meet you on pier, tell you all where to go.”
This brought a few snickers before a beefy, middle aged man in a white suit with matching whiskers spoke up.
“I am Prussian,” he announced, looking around like he expected a challenge. “Ze lackey from ze British Government vill be of no use to me vatsoever!”
“Oh, but he will,” the crewman said. “He tell you all you need to know.”
“Harrumph!” was the man’s only reply.
Ellsworth sat down on his trunk, wiping his brow and wishing he had thought to bring a wide-brimmed hat. The sporty little racing cap he wore provided no shade at all. No matter, that would be his first acquisition when he arrived in the town, along with a tropical suit.
The promised ten minutes passed quickly, and the launch made its way into a confusing jumble of luggers and dhows, floats and buoys, to tie up at a floating pier. Ellsworth supervised the unloading of his precious field lab, and they were shortly being addressed by an immaculate man in a spotless white suit who efficiently got their luggage loaded onto two buckboards, found the Prussian gentleman an escort to his nation’s consular office, and loaded the rest onto a passenger wagon drawn by two large, impeccably groomed draft horses.
“You don’t have the use of an autocar?” one of the three ladies in the group asked.
“We’ve heard of them,” the government greeter replied, tongue in cheek. “I’m afraid that East Africa is well off the beaten path. We’re lucky to obtain the basics here.”
“That isn’t what the prospectus said,” the man who was her companion complained.
“I am sorry,” said the government man. “Are you here for an agricultural parcel?”
“Well, I’m truly sorry if the prospectus was misleading. I have no control over that. I can guarantee that we do have the land you were promised, and a railroad to get you there.”
“Well, I never did!”
This low key grousing went on throughout the ride to an imposing Colonial edifice in moss-taken white stucco imperiously describing itself as the Queen’s Royal Hotel of Mombasa. All were ushered in, including Ellsworth, still fussing over his outsized trunk and its handling.
“I say,” the government man said, approaching Ellsworth with a bemused expression, “didn’t you read the prospectus?”
“I received no prospectus,” Ellsworth replied. “What the devil are you people referring to?”
“Oh, dear. Aren’t you on the list to receive an acreage?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, dear,” the man repeated. “I’m afraid you aren’t supposed to be here, then.”
“Well, why did you bring me?”
“I just assumed that… Oh, dear. Let’s start over, shall we? I am Robert Lee Cooper, the Governor General’s secretary in charge of getting the settlers off on the right foot.”
“Quite. The Crown is giving away plots in the interior to those willing to farm them. The main cash crop is coffee. You know about that, at least?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, dear. Well, who are you, then?”
“Doctor Nicholas Ellsworth, botanist. I’ve just graduated from Cambridge, and am here to catalog the flora.”
“Dear, dear, we seem to be at a bit of cross purposes, then. I’ll tell you what, I’ll set you up with a room for a few days. Not strictly cricket, but we aren’t getting so many takers that we don’t have room for a working scientist of the Crown. You’ll need to make your own arrangements as soon as possible, however.”
“Not to worry, Mr. Cooper, I plan to be headed up-country as soon as I can arrange transportation.”
“Very good, then. The obvious choice is the railroad up to Nairobi, but there is any manner of choices. If you spend the evening in the bar of this hotel, you’ll encounter any number of persons in the business of moving goods and people. You should be able to find a method that suits you.”
“I am obliged to you, Mr. Cooper. I shall be there as soon as I get settled.”