Articles in this series:
Series: Ethiopia’s Historic Quest for Medicine
04. Ethiopia’s Historic Quest for Medicine
Ethiopia a Century and a Half Ago
We saw last week that foreign medicines had long been in great demand in Ethiopia. We saw also that, by the middle of the nineteenth century, such medicines were relatively well known, and relatively much used, at the country’s more important towns, particularly in governing and related circles.
King Sahla Sellase
King Sahla Sellase of Shawa was in particular a great fan of foreign medical treatment. This is fully apparent in the often excessively critical reports of the British envoy, Captain Harris. In May 1842 he reported:
“The King’s attention would appear to be now solely engrossed in amassing medicines. Finding that the stock of calomel [in the palace] had been nearly exhausted in the cure of fifteen hundred syphilitic patients he has sent constantly [to the British Embassy] during the last fortnight to request supplies of every drug contained in the stores, with explanations for use, and expressed much disappointment at learning that the chest contained neither the horn of a serpent, which he believed to possess the most valuable medical virtues, nor any cure for those who go mad from looking at a black dog.”
Emphasising the number of patients then coming to the British Residency for treatment, and his wish to collaborate, by providing medical assistance, Harris continued:
“Wretches flocking to the residency for relief from the remotest corners of Shoa, I have imparted to His Majesty my scheme for the more general diffusion of the advantages of mercury [a medicine then widely used for syphilis] within his dominion, and it appears to have received the royal approbation.”
Returning to the King’s constant desire for medicines, the envoy wrote again, in June, to report:
“The royal stock of European medicines was again brought down to be labelled, although very ample directions relative to their properties had previously been given…”
The Ordinary People
The Ethiopian public at large was no less responsive to foreign medicines. Barker, another member of the British mission, wrote about the ordinary people:
“Notwithstanding their asserted contempt for the white strangers on our first arrival [they] are obliged to admit that they are superior to them in many instances. Many were the visits I received from persons residing at great distances who came to be cured for their real or imaginary diseases or to procure medicine for their relatives. One man begged earnestly for medicine for his daughter residing at Angolala (32 miles distant) upon whom the evil eye had fallen, another on behalf of his brother who had his skull fractured by a fall from his mule at Kooldars, another also on behalf of his brother, a man in the downhill of life, or to use a more common expression, on the wrong side of forty.”
The British mission was thus kept constantly busy with medical matters. Its surgeon, Kirk, reported, in March 1842:
“Since the arrival of this mission in August 1841 I have… afforded medical assistance to at least 1,000 individuals, two-thirds of them being common cases of syphilis, a disease which is exceedingly common and is committing great ravages in the kingdom of Shoa, attacking all ranks and all ages, from the lowest beggar to the immediate relatives of the King.”
Turning to the treatment he used, he adds: “I have found mercury combined with opium a mild and certain remedy for every form of the disease, for which with the doubtful exception of their thermal springs they have no remedy.”
The British mission, not surprisingly, soon found itself acutely short of medical supplies. Harris accordingly wrote urgently to the British Government to supply him with some forty different types of medicine, as well as a lancet. In his request for blue powder, used in the treatment of syphilis, he observed that on its arrival it was his intention “to suggest to the King the distribution of portions of it throughout the kingdom by the hands of natives instructed in its use, in order to admit of the blessing being more widely enjoyed.”
This plan for a modern-type medical facility had, however, to be abandoned, because of the mission’s speedy departure. Fourteen pounds of mercury in the mission store were, however, converted into blue pills.
Harris, who wished to present his stay in Ethiopia as a grand success, later claimed, obviously with some exaggeration, that he and his compatriots had “rescued three thousand patients from the jaws of death.”
Beside the official British mission there was a private English medical practitioner. He was a British naval surgeon, Charles Johnston, who lived in Shawa, mainly at Ankobar, Aleyu Amba, and Angolala, in 1841. He has left no details of his own medical work, but he is important in Ethiopia’s medical history: his memoirs contain much valuable data on traditional Ethiopian medicine and surgery.
The Impact of Foreign Medicine
One of those apparently much impressed by the coming of the British mission, and presumably its involvement in modern medicine, was Sahla Sellase’s mother. The German missionary Krapf quotes her as exclaiming, in March 1842,
“What astonishing things we have seen in the time of Sahla Sellase! Formerly we only heard of these things, and of your white people; but now we have seen with our eye and believe what we were told!”
An Armenian in Tegray
Foreign medicine meanwhile was also making its appearance in other parts of the country, notably in Tegray and Gondar, as well as at the coast.
Report has it that the leading resident foreign practitioner in Tegray, towards the middle of the nineteenth century, was an Armenian called Gorgorius. Little is known of his methods of treatment, except what was reported by the renowned British resident Mansfield Parkyns. The latter, who was very critical of them, claims that the Armenian administered sufferers of venereal diseases,”at a considerable charge what he professes to be a certain cure.” This consisted, however, of “nothing more than a dozen or two pills containing corrosive sublimate,” the recipe for which he had “no doubt, obtained from some quack.” Though a dangerous medicine, Parkyns was convinced that it might,”if properly administered, be beneficial; but with our friend, who never troubles himself either to examine the patient, or enquire how long he has been afflicted, simply receiving his fee and desiring his patient to take so many per day until the box is finished, it is a case of kill perhaps, oftener than of cure.”
Mansfield Parkyns himself practiced a certain amount of medicine. He recalls that, using calomel pills, he treated “many cases of venereal disease,” and achieved “much success” when able to treat patients in time. He complains that patients were, however, often “very difficult to deal with, for they cannot be made to understand that, where one dose will do them good, two may be injurious.”
A Turk in Gondar
Early nineteenth century Gondar also had a resident foreign medical practitioner. He was a Turkish veterinarian, who had reportedly deserted from the Egyptian cavalry, and practised in the Muslim section of the city. He is said to have possessed a stock of foreign medicines, which he had acquired from various European travellers, but according to the Frenchman d’Abbadie, was “not acquainted with their properties or doses.”
Medicine and Politics at the Coast
Popular interest in foreign medicine was so great that it was on one occasion at least a factor contributing to the penetration of European colonialism.
This can be seen if we look at the unpublished report of the French traveller Combes, who reveals how he acquired the small Red Sea port of Edd in 1840. He relates that one of his companions, Peluchenau, on landing there, was at once asked by one of the elders for medicine for his child, who was covered with sores. Peluchenau replied that “many months would be required to cure the illness.” The father, thinking only of his son, replied,”Well then, stay with us!”
“It was thus,” Combes explains, “that negotiations began. “Friend,” resumed M. Peluchenau,” will you give us houses and a small piece of land if we wish to establish ourselves among you?”. “Without any doubt” replied the African. “And if we ask you to sell the land, will you agree to sell it?” “Certainly”. “Very well” said M. Peluchenau, “we will go on board, and I will finish this business for you with M. Combes.”
The man of Edd accordingly accompanied Peluchenau on board the boat, and France had thereby established itself on the Red Sea coast, of what is now Eritrea.
Medicine and politics, then as later, often went hand in hand.