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Series: Early Photography
02. Advent of the Camera in Ethiopia
We saw last week that some of the earliest photographs to be taken in Ethiopia were those of the British expedition to Maqdala in 1867-8. Now read on:.
In the late 1870s King Menilek of Shawa arranged to employ three Swiss craftsmen to help him in the modernisation of his country.
The most notable of them, Alfred Ilg, a graduate of the Zurich polytechnic, arrived in 1879, and served for many years as both technician and diplomatic advisor. An enthusiastic photographer he was soon taking many shots with a large camera, but had not been long in the country, as long he afterwards recounted, when he was summoned to his master’s presence. “I have heard something about you”, Menilek is supposed to have declared, “which was very bad of you, and of which I surely would not have believed you capable. At the same time it is so ridiculous, so improbable, that I would not have believed it at all had I not heard it from trustworthy people”.
Ilg, surprised by this accusation, at once inquired to what the monarch was referring, whereupon Menilek continued, “I have been informed that without my knowledge you made me very small, and stuffed me into a black box with my whole town, together with houses, people and mules. And, what is even more unbelievable, in this box I was standing on my head with my legs in the air”.
“Finally Understood the Workings of a Camera”
Ilg, who, as his biographer Conrad Keller relates, was embarrassed by this report of his photographic exploits, found himself obliged to explain to His Majesty the principal laws of optics. This, he says, required some pedagogical skill, but passed off all right, and the monarch “finally understood the workings of a photographic camera”.
A subsequent German traveller Felix Rosen, retelling the story, commented that Menilek as a result “knew not only the phenomenon of the photographic camera, but much else in the field of applied physics, mechanics and chemistry”.
Many of Ilg’s photographs have been preserved, in the possession of the craftsman’s descendants in Zurich. A number have been reproduced by the Swiss photographer’s second biographer, Willi Loepfe, in his monograph Alfred Ilg und die thiopische Eisenbahn (Frauenfeld and Zurich, 1978).
Menilek’s Interest in Innovations
Menilek’s acceptance of the camera, it should be emphasised, was much more than an isolated incident. It typifies the ruler’s keen interest in modern inventions, and determination to overcome the then widespread Ethiopian prejudice against foreign innovations. It was this spirit of technological adventure which led Menilek to introduce into his country the railway, the first modern roads and bridges, the telephone and telegraph, the printing press, the first foreign-type schools and a hospital, a bank, coined money and postage stamps, modern innovations for which he is to this day famous.
The last two decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the advent in the Ethiopian and Horn of African region of several dozen European traveller-photographers. Arriving first in the nearby French, Italian and British colonies on the coast, they soon also made their appearance in Ethiopia, initially at the capital and its environs, but before long throughout virtually the entire country, including some of the remotest provinces to the south, east and west.
Through their individual endeavours such travellers amassed a wealth of photographic documentation. This was more important as far as Ethiopia’s visual image is concerned in that it coincided with major advances in the art of printing, which enabled photographs to be reproduced with increasing accuracy and beauty. The result was that engravings, by this time themselves largely based on photographs, were replaced within little more than a decade by actual photographic reproductions.
One of the first foreign travellers in the region to make significant use of photography was the French geographer Georges Revoil who in 1880-1 investigated the coastal strip of northern Somaliland, and took numerous pictures of it and its proud inhabitants. He was followed by the British explorer Frank Linsly James, who journeyed from the northern Somali coast into the Ethiopian Ogaden province in 1884-5.
James recalls in his Unknown Horn of Africa (London, 1888) that though numerous “natives”, as he terms them, had “no objection to being immortalised” by photography, “many were frightened and ran away”. In one place his efforts to take photographs evoked “considerable abuse” from the inhabitants, who angrily “called all who sat for their portraits dogs and rats”. Despite such opposition James was able to include in his book numerous photographs of the local population.
The Somali region, including the Ogaden, was also visited at about the same time by James’s compatriot Major Henry George Charles Swayne, a great traveller, who undertook the first of numerous journeys into the area in 1884. He later observed in his Seventeen Trips through Somaliland (London, 1903) that he always kept a camera in his tent by his bed so as to capture any interesting situation which might arise. Advising would-be travellers of the usefulness of small hand cameras, which had come on the market round 1880, he declared them “invaluable”, and added, “I suggest that no large camera be used, nor chemicals, but that small photographs be taken with the hand camera and developed and enlarged on return to England”. His book contains a variety of photographs of the Somalis and of their country taken by himself, and a few others by a contemporary Polish traveller Prince Boris Czetwertynski.
Italy’s seizure of Massawa in 1885 had led meanwhile to the arrival of several Italian photographers. They included Luigi Fiorillo, Mauro Ledru, Francesco Nicotra, and Luigi Naretti, the latter a cousin of Giacomo Naretti, a craftsman in the service of Emperor Yohannes IV. They took numerous pictures of the port, its quay and fort, the former Egyptian governor’s palace, and some of the more colourful inhabitants. Subsequent Italian penetration, which was temporarily checked by Ras Alula at the battle of Dogali in 1887, was also accompanied by further photography.
The advent of the camera was symbolised at around this time by the photographing of Emperor Yohannes, the first Ethiopian imperial ruler whose image was thus recorded for posterity. A rare picture of him with his son Ras Araya Sellas was later included in the French edition of Gabra Sellase’s chronicle of Menilek, Chronique du regne de Menelik II, roi des rois d’Ethiopie (Paris, 1930-31).
Shots, several of them by the afore-mentioned Italian photographer Naretti, were also taken of several of his courtiers. A portrait of Ras Mangasha Yohannes, the then governor of Tegray, was later reproduced in the said edition of the chronicle, which also contains several of the Italian’s views of Adegrat, Maqale, Adwa, and other northern cities.
Photography was by this time also increasing in Eastern Ethiopia, where the Austrian ethnographer Dr Philipp Paulitschke, travelled in the Somali and Oromo inhabited areas, in 1885-7, and reached the walled city of Harar, which Richard Burton had first been described, without the help of photography, forty years earlier. In his major studies Harar and Beitrage zur Ethnographie und Anthropologie der Somal, Galla und Harari, both of which appeared in Leipzig in 1888, Paulitschke published a number of remarkable photographs. In the first of these books he relates that the Amir of Harar’s soldiers were happy to be immortalised by his camera in all their finery.
Their master, Abdulahi, the last Amir of Harar, would not, however, agree to be taken until his ullemas were convinced that photography was not contrary to the Qoran. The Austrian duly explained that the Caliphs of Istanbul and Cairo, and even the Great Sheriff of Mecca, had all been photographed, and that the camera did not produce any shadow like that made by graven images. The ullemas were at length persuaded, and the Amir’s photograph was eventually authorised. The chief nevertheless insisted that the traveller should refrain from showing the photograph in Harar, or indeed generally. Paulitschke also took photographs of “ethnographic types”, a striking panoramic view of the city, and picture of houses used by both the nomads of the interior and the settled peoples of the coast.
The first photographs of Ethiopia’s western provinces were made at around the same time by a Frenchman, Jules Borelli, who visited the central and western provinces of Shawa, Jimma and Kafa in 1885-8. He took numerous interesting photographs, among them views of Menilek’s palace at the then capital, Entotto, portraits of persons he had met, and scenes of the countryside, all of which he reproduced in his Ethiopie meridionale (Paris, 1890).
Another distinguished traveller of the late 1880’s was an Italian engineer, Luigi Robecchi-Bricchetti, who explored the Somali region and Harar, in 1888, and returned to the area in 1890 and 1891. In the course of his travels he took a considerable number of good photographs, including a portrait of Menilek’s cousin, Ras Makonnen. the renowned governor of the province, as wells as many pictures of ethnographic interest. Some of these are reproduced in Robecchi-Bricchetti’s Nell’ Harrar (Milan, 1896).
The Italian Geographical Society meanwhile had established a station at Let Marafeya, near the old Shawan capital, Ankobar. The second director of this establishment. Dr Leopoldo Traversi, who arrived in 1888, was responsible in the next decade for a significant amount of photography. Pictures taken by him or under his auspices include scenes of Ankobar and Let Marafeya, and several interesting portraits. Among them is one of Grazmach Josf Negus, the Ethiopian who translated into Amharic the famous treaty of Wuchale of 1889 as a result of which the Italians were soon to claim a Protectorate over Ethiopia, and another of Abba Jifar, king of the westerly Muslim province of Jimma. There was also a dramatic shot of Ras Mangasha Yohannes of Tegray bearing a stone on his shoulder in 1894 as a sign of his submission to Menilek, who had by then assumed the title of Emperor. Several of Traversi’s pictures were subsequently reproduced as engravings in the Italian missionary Guglielmo Massaja’s great multi-volume memoir I miei trentacinque anni di missione nell’ alta Etiopia (Rome and Milan, 1885-1895), while others later appeared as photographs in Traversi’s Let-Marefia (Milan, 1931).
The southernmost stretch of Ethiopia had by then been investigated by a Hungarian, Count Teleki von Szek, who took a number of photographs of the land and its people in 1888. Some of the best were published by his companion Lieutenant Ludwig von Hohnel in Ostaquatorial-Afrika (Gotha, 1890) and Zum Rudolf-See und Stephanie–See (Wien, 1892), the latter translated into English as Discovery of Lakes Rudolph and Stefanie (London, 1894).
Further Photography, in Ethiopia, in the Late Nineteenth Century.