After his visit to Britain and Ireland, from 1826 -1828, Prince Hermann, Furst Von Puckler-Muskau returned to Germany, and wrote about his travels with great good humour and vigour. His book, Tour of a German Prince (published in 1830, in four volumes ), was an instant success. Translated into English the following year it was a best seller, and a topic of conversation, in both England and America.
The Prince, who began his tour with the hope of finding a wealthy wife, found instead that he could earn a modest income from his travel writing. Soon after the success of his first publishing venture, and leaving his former wife Lucie minding the schloss at Bad Muskau, he subsequently travelled in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan, note book in hand.
In 1837 he was in Cairo and went to the slave market, a popular venue for tourists. He was instantly struck by the beauty of a young Ethiopian girl offered for sale. He immediately bought her. Describing her as an ‘appetising savage girl’ he disguised her as his Mameluke boy, and took her away on his travels.
I accept that this is a rather adult Diary this week; so if those with a sensitive disposition wish to avert their eyes for the next few lines, please do so now....
It appears that the girl, named Ajiame by the slave traders, was actually called Mahbuba (the‘ beloved’ ). She was a member of the southern Ethiopian Oromos people, dragged and bound with her sister from her burning village as a very young girl. She remembered that her father and brothers were killed during the raid, and that she was held captive during the years that she grew into young womanhood, ready to be sold. *
The prince became completely besotted by Mahbuba. But whether it was in deference to her youth, or reluctance to break some kind of black and white taboo, he initially kept his hands off her. One evening, however, he found her in flagrante delicto with another boy. He was furious and threatened to throw her out. She, however, fell naked at his knees and beseeched forgiveness. Legend says that he drew her to her feet, and held her with passion. He adored her for the rest of her life.
A joy to behold
The Prince and Mahbuba continued their travels together through Palestine, Syria and Istanbul. He was charmed by her natural grace, and eagerness to learn Western ways. She appeared to enjoy the novelty of her new and totally unimagined life.
When they arrived in Europe they stayed in Budapest for a while, where Mahbuba received Holy Baptism. For a time the Prince sent her to the best convent school in Vienna, where he asked the nuns to teach her European ways. She delighted them all by her natural grace and intelligence. She lit up any room she entered with her smile. She had an aptitude for languages, and quickly became fluent in Italian. She was delightful company, and was naturally polite and kind. Society was enthusiastic to entertain the Prince and his ‘princess’, and to observe Mahbuba’s ‘exotic appearance.’ She was the toast of Vienna, written about in the newspapers, and the subject of conversation. When she was presented to the Emperor and the court, she was applauded. Everyone loved her.
‘My greatest comfort’
However, poor Lucie, holding the schloss for the wealthy wife that never appeared, was jealous and alarmed that a penniless girl was robbing her of the fortune she wanted, and of the man she probably still loved.
But fate would play out this story. Poor Mahbuba, perhaps unused to damp accommodation, and European weather, was subject to colds. Eventually she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and became very ill. The Prince wrote to Lucie saying they were coming to Bad Muskau (about 160km south of Berlin ), for rest. Lucie flew into a rage, and forbade him to bring the girl there. The Prince replied that there was nowhere else to go. They were on their way.
Lucie fled to Berlin and sulked. Then Lucie said she too was ill. Then Lucie said that she too was dying. She insisted the Prince join her on her death bed.
The prince was torn. He instructed a doctor to keep him informed on Mahbuba’s health, and left for Berlin. Two days later, October 27 1840, the servant drew back the curtains in her room, to find that Mahbuba had died. She died alone. She was a small figure in a large bed. She is buried in the local cemetery, marked by a large stone-shaped sarcophagus, with a single word‘ Mahbuba’. It is visited by thousands every year.
“ I felt more love for her than I thought myself capable of,” the Prince wrote to a friend,“ [her death] Was my most intense pain. She was my greatest comfort.”
Lucie recovered, and lived for a further 14 years.
NOTES: * Such was the demand for young male and female slaves in the mid 19th century, that, incredibly, more than 2,500 were being sold to dealers in the Sudan, Egypt and Arabia every year. This trade continued into the 20th century; and continues today under the more sanitised name of ‘human trafficking’.
(Sources: Articles by Kathrin Schmitt, James Conway, A Regency Visitor - The Diaries of Prince Puckler-Muskau 1826 - 1828, edited by Butler 1958, and good old Google ).