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Series: Ethiopia’s Historic Quest for Medicine
03. Ethiopia’s Historic Quest for Medicine
The Medical Activities in the Early 19th Century Successors
We saw last week that the rulers and people of Ethiopia had long been interested in foreign medical practice of all kinds. Valuable evidence of this is to be found in the writings of foreign travellers, who were frequently approached by Ethiopians of all classes requiring medical advice or assistance.
Making of Amulets
Two of the visiting foreign travellers approached for cures, in the 1830s, were the French Saint Simonian missionaries Combes and Tamisier. They recall that a young Ethiopian country-woman on one occasion begged them for an amulet to cure her sterility. She was so insistent that, though they did not believe in the efficacy of such “treatment,” they eventually agreed to her request.
Justifying this action they write:
“We might perhaps be blamed in Europe for having contributed to maintaining, or even propagating, such a ridiculous belief; we reply, firstly, that we have never denied the power of moral influence which can alone, in certain cases, cure illnesses often existing only in the imagination of those who believe themselves afflicted; and we add that we have always held the principle of never destroying a useful or agreeable error when we have nothing to propose with which to replace the charm of a lost illusion.”
Putting their case in somewhat different terms, they add:
“In a country deprived of remedies and of men knowing how to administer them, the essential thing is not to undeceive the inhabitants as to the powers of amulets, but rather to procure them medicines and doctors.”
“A Mass of European Medicines”
Notwithstanding the above apology it is clear that foreign medicines were in fact by then making their way into some of Ethiopia’s most important political centres. On reaching the Shawan capital, Combes and Tamisier were astonished to find that the local ruler, King Sahla Sellase, was in possession of “a mass of European medicines,” which he had received from India, by way of the Gulf of Aden port of Zayla.
European Travellers at Work; Krapf and d’Abbadie
Medicines were also being imported by European travellers, all of whom to a greater or lesser extent dabbled in medical matters, and administered treatment to the rulers and people of the countries through which they passed.
The German Protestant missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf was for example actively engaged in medical activity. In December 1841 he wrote to the British Political Agent in Aden, asking for “some 5 or 6 ounces” of calomel, a mercury-based medicine then widely used in the treatment of syphilis. He wished to dispense this treatment, he explained, because it had in “many cases” proved “very useful,” for a disease which was “so prevailing … that you cannot but furnish asking people with a remedy against it.”
The renowned French traveller Arnauld d’Abbadie was likewise much involved in medicine. On one occasion he treated the consort of Emperor Sahla Dengel, one of the later Emperors at Gondar. This led to no small jealousy on the part of the British. One of the latter reported, in 1842, that the Frenchman was “practising medicine with considerable success,” and thereby “raising himself to a high place in the eyes of the ignorant population by professing chiromancy.”
The French Scientific Mission, and its Treatments
More important than such amateur treatment was the work of the first French Scientific Mission, which toured much of Ethiopia between 1839 and 1843. The mission included two physicians, Doctors Petit and Quartin-Dillon, who contributed greatly to its success.
Petit provides a detailed account of the treatments he prescribed. He reports that, while in Tegray, he used emetics with ipecacuanha and saline purgatives in treating patients suffering from influenza; astringent lotions and calomel for ophthalmia, or eye disease, and emeto-cathartic treatment for gastric and intestinal complaints. In cases of wounds and light abrasions he made use of opiated lead acetate compresses. When complications set in, he would open up the flesh, and inject various astringent and opiated solutions. In cases of acute inflammation he applied poultices for several days, and destroyed fungus in wounds by sprinkling them with lead acetate. Bullets he removed, “to the great admiration” of his assistants, and cauterised scorpion skins with ammoniac.
Inoculation with Defective Vaccine
Petit also imported smallpox vaccine from Europe, and, with it, carried out a “large number of inoculations.” His vaccine had, however, been spoilt in transit,” and was virtually worthless. The “good will” of the Ethiopian public was nevertheless so great that it displayed “blind confidence” in it.
From Tegray the French Scientific Mission travelled south to Shawa, where it prescribed medicine for a number of important personalities, including King Sahla Sellase’s sister.
Sahla Sellase was also visited by a French Diplomatic Mission, headed by Rochet d’Hericourt, who arrived in Shawa in 1839. The envoy, though inexperienced in medicine, became a corresponding member of the French Royal Medical Society of Marseilles. On arriving at Angolala, one of the King Sahla Sellase’s capitals, he was warmly welcomed by the King. The latter said to him, he claims, “You belong to a very enlightened nation; no doubt you understand the art of curing diseases.” The Frenchman replied with pretended modesty that he had no such claims.”I made him understand,” he recalls, “that I had not made any special study of this science,” but “nevertheless had with me some remedies which in certain cases produced good results”. Before long he was treating the King, and had “the happiness,” he claims, of proving his medicine’s efficacy on the monarch’s own person.
Rochet also treated the royal consort, Queen Bezabesh. He was called upon to attend her when she was suffering from toothache. He gave her a piece of cotton soaked in muriatic acid, whereupon the pain “disappeared as if by magic.” This cure, he recalls, “assured me a high place in the esteem of the princess,” the more so as he had two other occasions to treat her.
Rochet’s Return to Shawa
Rochet visited Shawa again in 1842, at a time when Sahla Sellase was suffering from a severe attack of rheumatism. “Haven’t you brought a remedy which can cure me of this ill?,” he asked the Frenchman. Apparently unable to treat him, the envoy had to resort, he admits, to sharp practice. Wishing to obtain the foetus of an hippopotamus for a French museum, he told the King that the only cure for the complaint lay in the body of that animal, and in this way persuaded the monarch to organise an hippopotamus hunt.
On another occasion Rochet is said to have agreed to produce a charm against death. That at least is the assertion of his rival, the British envoy Captain W.C. Harris, who writes:
“In Shoa all ranks of both sexes are loaded with amulets and talismans against every disease accidental to mortals… but none possess armour against death… M. Rochet during his sojourn in the Kingdom was desired to write two charms against dissolution, and on the contents being subsequently translated by the Reverend L. Krapf at the royal desire, the King was exceedingly wroth.”
This was because one amulet reportedly read, “This is written at the desire of the Negus, I shall feel happy if anyone can write a better,” The other amulet is said to have declared, “May God open the eyes of Sahla Sellase to the perception of his errors.”
The British Diplomatic Mission
The British Diplomatic Mission of 1841-2, headed by Captain Harris, was perhaps even more active in the medical field than the French. Its staff included a surgeon called Kirk, who treated both Sahla Sellase and Queen Bezabesh, as well as many of their subjects.
Harris, describing one encounter with the monarch, recalls:
“The King feeling indisposed and desirous of trying the effect of a seidlitz (i.e. laxative powder), with a box of which he had been furnished some time previously, we were summoned to the presence chamber and the custom of the country compelling the physician to partake in the first instance of the medicine prescribed to Royalty in order to precluded the administration of poison, it was proposed to follow the etiquette, but His Majesty laughingly observed, `there is no need of that. I am not afraid of you’.”
Treatment of the royal women, however, sometimes posed some difficulties. Harris, in another report, relates:
“a message was delivered by a Baldaraba (i.e. official contact man) to the effect that Queen Bezabesh was extremely indisposed and in need of medical aid, but, it being contrary to Court etiquette that the King’s consort should be seen by strangers, the physician could not be accorded an interview. Assistant surgeon Kirk visited Her Majesty the ensuing morning, when her person was concealed behind a small coloured tent, through an aperture in which the royal hand was passed outside.”
Hiding behind a Masob, or Basket Table
A similar practice was followed when another royal lady, Princess Warqu Fere, fell ill. She sat, in seclusion, behind a masob, or basket table, and thrust only her feet out, for the doctor to inspect.
While at the Shawan court the British also treated Sahla Sellase’s son, Seyfa Sellase, whose eyes were in”a high state of inflammation,” as well as “several women of the royal kitchen,” who had been “severely scalded” by the braking of a pan of soup.
Sahla Sellase, as we shall see next week, was deeply interested in these and other cures, and had much to say about them.