Articles in this series:
Series: Early Photography
03. Advent of the Camera in Ethiopia
We saw last week that the first photographs to be shot in Ethiopia were apparently shot by the Protestant missionary Henry Aaron Stern. These, as we shall now see, were followed by others, taken by the Napier Expedition of 1867-8, Now read on.
The British campaign of 1867-8 was the first to take advantage of the tremendous technological strides that had occurred in Europe since the Crimean War a decade or so earlier. Among various new inventions, including breech loading rifles, searchlights, and water-pumps, the British military authorities made extensive use of the camera.
The Royal Engineers
The story is chronicled in the official account of the campaign, Trevenen J. Holland and Henry M. Hozier’s Record of the Expedition to Abyssinia (London, 1870). It relates that on 13 September, 1867, shortly before the beginning of operations, the British Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Cambridge, proposed that one of the military units, the Royal Engineers, should provide a photographic team consisting of a non-commissioned officer and six men, primarily to photograph sketches and plans made by staff officers. Seven photographers from the 10th Company of the Royal Engineers were accordingly attached to the expedition, and the then considerable sum of477.6s.9d. was sanctioned for the purchase of photographic equipment and materials.
Because of the mountainous character of the land to be traversed, and the virtual absence of roads, it was laid down that the apparatus and stores should be packed in containers suitable for transportation on mule-back, and that each packet should not exceed 80 to 90lb. in weight. The equipment selected was “designed primarily for use as a field printing-press, in other words for photographing, and, in so doing, multiplying or reducing Staff officers’ sketches, and reproducing copies of them as rapidly as possible for distribution”.
The Camera Selected
The camera selected was an 11 x 8in. sliding and folding instrument, but, being unsuitable for taking portraits, a Dallmeyer triplet lens for a 12 x 10in. plate was also purchased. It could take single portraits a few feet from the sitter or groups twenty to thirty feet distant. The photographers’ supplies, which were packed in eighteen cases, also included a photographic tent, or portable dark-room, a copying table, a printing frame, a portable still, and a mounting frame, besides a number of packets of chemicals and sensitised paper.
The Advance Inland
During the advance inland one of the seven photographers fell ill at the town of Sanafe, but his companions continued their march undeterred. Soon afterwards, on reaching the town of Adegrat, some chemicals ran short, and a telegraphic request had to be despatched for further supplies. Despite such difficulties the team was kept constantly busy. Besides having to accompany the soldiers on their long and strenuous journey to Maqdala, the photographers were occupied almost every evening and early morning in taking negatives and printing out plans, and at night in sensitising papers. The extent of their work is evident from the fact that no fewer than 15,000 prints are reported to have been made.
Though mainly engaged in such routine army work, the Engineers also took a few photographs of Ethiopian personalities, settlements, and mountain scenery, as well as general pictures of the British troops. A number of these photographs have been preserved in several collections, which, however, mainly duplicate each other. Seventy photographs are in the possession of the British Army Museum’s Ogilby Trust, fifty-two in the National Army Museum, both in London, and twenty-four in the Library of the Institution of the Royal Engineers, in Chatham, Kent.
Several photographic albums were also issued to the public, one of the most complete of which, containing sixty-five pictures, is in the possession of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa.
Some of the most interesting pictures taken by the expedition are a portrait of Emperor Tewodros’s son and heir, Prince Alamayahu, and of Mastewat, the Oromo queen of Wallo, with her eldest son Imam Ahmad, and a leading courtier.
There were also group photographs of some of the chieftains of Tegray, among them Marcha Warqe, a young Ethiopian who had studied in India, and of the British commander, Sir Robert Napier and his staff, as well as of Tewodros’s European captives after their release. Other pictures comprised several views of Annesley Bay, or Zulla, on the Red Sea coast, where the expedition landed, showing a considerable amount of shipping.
There are also scenes of the inland settlements of Sanafe, Antalo and Adegrat, the latter the site of a small fort. Even more interesting perhaps are interior and exterior views of the fortress of Maqdala, among them one of its treasury and another of its church with the Emperor’s recently dug grave nearby. There were also photographs of an Ethiopian minstrel with a one-string masenqo, or fiddle, Ethiopian crosses, weapons, and an illuminated page from a parchment manuscript, scenes at a British army camp, and views of the mountains, and one of the rivers the soldiers had been obliged to cross. Also of great historical interest are photographs of two officer’s sketches, one of Dajazmatch Kasa, the then ruler of Tegray province, who had collaborated with the British expedition, and the other of Emperor Tewodros, drawn immediately after his dramatic suicide.
Many of these photographs were used over the years to enrich later accounts both of the missionaries’ detention, and of the expedition which secured their release. Several pictures appeared as engravings, notably in Stern’s autobiographical memoir, The Captive Missionary (London, 1869), Roger Acton’s The Abyssinian Expedition and the Life and Reign of King Theodore (London, 1872), and Percy Arnold’s Prelude to Magdala (London, 1992), while a number of actual photographs were reproduced in histories of the campaign, such as F. Myatt’s The March to Magdala (London, 1970) and Darrell Bates’s The Abyssinian Difficulty (London, 1979).
The expedition’s photographs were important in that they were the first ever taken by professional cameramen in Ethiopia, and were therefore of considerable technical excellence.
Unfortunately for the country’s cultural history however the bulk of the photographers’ labours were devoted to the reproduction of sketches of only ephemeral military interest. Photographs of historical, sociological or cultural significance received low priority. The expedition furthermore by-passed Massawa, the principal Red Sea port, Adwa, the main city of northern Ethiopia, and the ancient city of Aksum, and failed to reach other major historical centres, such as Lalibala or Gondar. Though an archaeologist (who was involved in the disposal of the loot from Maqdala) and a geologist were attached to the mission, no attempt was made to utilise the photographic team in making any scientific record of even the areas visited. Grateful though one must be for the expedition’s photographic offerings, one cannot but regret a great opportunity for ever lost.
Prince Alemayahu’s arrival in England was, however, not without interesting photographic consequences. The orphan’s portrait was taken by Julia Cameron, Britain’s first professional woman photographer, who likewise took one of the child in the arms of his sometime British guardian Captain Charles Speedy. Alemayahu, on going to school in England, was also photographed by Mills and Saunders, studio artists in Eton. The exiled waif, who died in England at the early age of eighteen, was thus the first Ethiopian royal to be immortalised by the camera.