Abridged version of this review was published in The Herald #29, Winter 2004–05

EXCERPTS from the book

Letters from Abyssinia, 1916 and 1917
by Major Hugh Drummond Pearson
Edited by Frederic A. Sharf, with
commentary and annotations by Richard Pankhurst
Tsehai Publishers
251 pages

Reviewed by Neil A. Boyer (Addis Ababa 1962-64)

IN 1916, NEARLY 50 YEARS BEFORE the arrival of the Peace Corps, a British army major crossed from the Sudan into Abyssinia (as it was then known) and had what seems to have been a very Peace Corps-like experience. With a few colleagues and a small group of muleteers, he gradually found his way to Lake Tana (spelled Tsana in this book), and for four months, he worked to map the region around the lake to prepare for the construction of a possible dam that would control the water flowing into the Blue Nile. One year later, in 1917, he was one of the first to take the train from Djibouti on its newly extended leg into Addis Ababa, where he got to meet and present honors to the newly crowned Empress Zauditu and her regent, Ras Tafari Makonnen (later Emperor Haile Selassie).

In the course of these two trips, Hugh Drummond Pearson wrote extensive letters to his mother and presented the British Foreign Office with reports on the people, the food, the game, trade and observations on many other things. His writings include occasional harsh comments about the country he is visiting, the kind of thing that PCVs later learned not to put on postcards. He encountered frustration with slow-moving local officials and obstructionists, and he was annoyed by the culturally insensitive behavior of one of his colleagues. Even the overly formal manner of the senior British diplomat came in for his criticism.

But Pearson’s team spent a lot of time getting involved with the local people. They provided medical treatment, paid for assistance in the mapping, attended church services, and shot snipe and guinea fowl for their meals. Pearson generally appears to have gotten very close to those he encountered -- at least judging by his own words. Pearson also was pleased to be accorded very high honors by high dignitaries and to present himself in a scarlet tunic festooned with medals. (At least this part of the experience was not typical for Peace Corps Volunteers, who, to the best of my knowledge, were not issued red tunics.)

This fascinating book should appeal to the interests of many Peace Corps Volunteers and others who have had similar experiences in the same areas, as well as those who will be interested in the political intrigue surrounding the unseating of Lij Yasu and ascendancy of Ras Tafari.

Controlling Lake Tana
The background is this: During World War I, most British military and diplomatic efforts were focused on fighting the Germans and the Turks. But there was a small cadre of British officers in Cairo and Khartoum trying to get Abyssinia to sign an agreement allowing the Brits to construct a dam at Lake Tana to control the outflow of water and meet the downstream needs of the Sudan and Egypt along the Nile.

This idea had been raised with the emperor Menelik in 1902. It had even written into a signed agreement, but the language had been vague and the dam had not been pursued. As Menelik’s health deteriorated, so did political affairs in Abyssinia. In 1911, Menelik designated his grandson, Lij Yasu, only 15 years old, to be his successor, and things got worse. When Menelik died in December 1913, the Brits were afraid they would lose all influence in Abyssinia and decided the time was ripe to renew the quest for an agreement on the Lake Tana waters.

In early 1914, Lord Kitchner, Consul General in Egypt, and Sir Reginald Wingate, Governor General in Khartoum, asked Army Major Hugh Drummond Pearson, then Director of Sudan Surveys, to undertake a mission to map the area around Lake Tana. They hoped that the survey would demonstrate to Yasu that the higher level of water caused by a dam would not damage the area’s prized churches and farmland, and they hoped he would be persuaded to sign the agreement. This time they would actually offer the Ethiopians some financial reward for the signing of a treaty and the building of a dam, which they had not done with Menelik. But the obstreperous Yasu, not given to diplomatic nicety and not usually available for discussion, was not at all interested in an agreement with Britain. He wanted to be on the winning side in World War I, apparently thinking the Germans and Turks would win, and he preferred sidling up to the Moslems in the south of Abyssinia to strengthening relations with untrustable Europeans. He was unpredictable, and the Brits and others were nervous.

Yasu’s Obstructionism
This book details Pearson’s frustrating efforts to undertake that mission. Yasu repeatedly delayed permission for the trip, and Pearson didn’t actually get to Abyssinia until January of 1916. Then Yasu appointed counterparts for the visiting Brits, an “Abyssinian Mission” whose leader constantly put obstacles in Pearson’s path. And when the survey was done, Yasu refused permission for Pearson to take the results to Addis Ababa, which had been the goal of the Brits.

However, just after Pearson returned to Khartoum, Lij Yasu was overthrown by a coalition of political leaders, with the encouragement and apparently the help of the British, French and Italians. Yasu’s army was defeated by the army of Ras Tafari, himself only 24 at the time. The Brits sought an opportunity for Pearson to go to Addis to explain the Lake Tana plan to the new government, and finally arranged for him to visit in 1917 to invest Ras Tafari with the regalia of the British order of the Grand Cordon of Saints Michael and George (G.C.M.C.). But Pearson’s explanations of the mapping effort – to Ras Tafari and others – fell on deaf ears, and the dam was never built.

(Controversy over control of the waters of the Nile actually has been a concern since the fourth century B.C. – see Daniel Kendie’s detailed account at http://www.hsu.edu/faculty/afo/1999-00/kendie.htm. As recently as March 2004, Ethiopia was discussing creation of a hydroelectric dam along the river, a plan that was not being well-received by its downstream neighbors.)

Letters to Mama
This book is not a narrative account but a clever pasting together of organized excerpts from Pearson’s letters from Khartoum, the Lake Tana area, and Addis Ababa. These are interspersed with extensive Foreign Office documents sent to London by Wilfred Thesiger, the British Minister in Addis – reflecting his own frustrations with Lij Yasu -- and by very helpful commentary and context by Professor Richard Pankhurst, the prolific historian of Ethiopia.

From his travels all over East Africa and the Middle East, Pearson wrote to his mother in England on the average of once a week for 30 years, from 1892 until his death at age 49 in 1922. More than a thousand of these letters were auctioned off by Sotheby’s in the year 2000, and Frederick Sharf snapped them up for a song because no one else was interested enough to bid. We can be pleased he did this, because the book is a real treasure of local observation of the Abyssinian land, culture and people, not to mention the intrigue supplied by Thesiger’s reports to the Foreign Office on his dealings with Lij Yasu and other officials.

Throughout this period, and throughout this book, Pearson (not unlike occasional Peace Corps Volunteers) worries that, while he is having a great cultural experience, he is wasting his time. His inferiors in the military are elsewhere getting engaged in real battles and earning medals and promotions, while he is literally stuck in the mud. He tells his mother he doesn’t want people to think her son is a “rotter.” Nevertheless, he continues to hope that his involvement in the building of a new dam will make a real contribution to Ethiopia, as well as to the needs of Sudan and Egypt.

As an indication that some problems never go away, it is interesting to note that when Pearson died of blackwater fever, he was in the Darfur region of the Sudan, mapping and hoping to erase the reason for tribal rivalries that afflict that area even today, 80 years later.

British Minister Thesiger, whose official reports play heavily in this book – returned home in 1919 and dropped dead at age 46 while shaving. His son – Sir Wilfred Thesiger (who was only seven when Pearson saw him in Addis in 1917) – went on to become one of the prominent explorers of the region, a la Lawrence of Arabia. An internet search of “Wilfred Thesiger” will surface many writings by and about him, including his visit to the Danakil nomads at age 23. Haile Selassie invited the young Thesiger, who had been born in Ethiopia, to his 1930 coronation, telling him “this is your country.” The author of many books on the region, Sir Wilfred died in August 2003 at the age of 93.

Lake Tana, 1916

Ready for the Trip

  • I have bought 65 most lovely coloured sacred pictures of saints, gold and very gaudy, for the Abyssinian priests at 5d each. Also some lovely silk shawls, scents, and soaps, and dolls and coloured balls for the children, and I am getting hard sweets for them to suck. (12 September 1915)
  • I start off here with two engineers, a geologist, a doctor, and an O.C. [Officer Commanding] escort with 24 Arabs in the first week in December, and I leave the Engineers and Geologist doing the engineering part of the show and the Lake; and go off, probably with the O.C. Escort for ceremonial purposes, to various local kings, Razes they call them, carrying about £500 worth of presents. I expect I shall be four months, making myself as pleasant as I can; and if I come back with the treaty signed, I shall have done my job. I hope at the end to travel down the unexplored portion of the Blue Nile, unseen yet by white man; and get back about the beginning of June. (16 October 1915)
  • I have been studying the Bible in order to be able to compete with the priests whom I shall shortly encounter, and who are wont to question and argue with me. (8 December 1915)
  • We have a most splendid ceremonial tent ready with rugs, couches, etc., and are taking plates, glass and those kind of things. We have the Union Jack, of course, to go before us; and also an Abyssinian flag to put up when visited by important chiefs. Douglas Thomson [the physician] and I ought to have great fun, and very little work as far as I can see. (31 December 1915)
  • We are in our second camp in Abyssinia, still in the plains of course, and have had our usual frightful difficulties with the “Habbashies” [natives of Abyssinia], whom no amount of coercion will move out of the habits of centuries; and as regards the time – even the day – we move, where we camp, etc., we are absolutely at their mercy. It is useless to fight against the tyranny of our transport, and I am old enough a traveler to realize this and submit to it. . . . Their talk in loading up is endless, and one has simply to remain placid and smile, and practice that endless patience which has to be the key note of our next three or four months’ work, though one longs to give them one and all twenty-five of the best [whip lashes] on a bare part of their anatomy. This might upset the whole apple cart though, and we might simply not be received; so one is forced to take the whole thing in good part. (23 January 1916)

Grand Welcome in Chilga

  • We could not have had a more cordial welcome made at Chilga [on the trade route between Sudan and Gondar], the first village of any size we struck. The Fitawari, which is a rank (a sort of general), is a young sportsman of about 22 years and an extremely nice boy and a bit of a dandy. He turned out in full kit – lion’s mane headdress and covered with gold armlets, shields, and gorgeous green and gold cloak, with his officers also in full kit and some 300 rifle and spear men – and met us about three miles outside the town. . . . We returned his visit in the afternoon and took his photograph in full kit, and were entertained to local beer (made out of honey, I believe) which was really not very unpleasant though I only sipped it. Sweets which we had brought with us were a great success and were scrambled for by the men as well as the children; and we parted great friends. . . . We have also been very successful so far with the priests. I hope it is not very hypocritical of me, but I am playing up to them hard, as they are people of great influence; and we visit all the churches and present the priests with religious pictures of the patron saint of their particular church. (5 February 1916)
  • Yesterday being Sunday, I attended the local church and had over two hours of as weird a ceremony as I have ever seen. . . . All the churches are built in the centre of groves of trees, and everybody attends; and at the conclusion of service there is endless gossip in the shade outside for some hours – really quite like church in a village at home. Service begins at 5 AM an hour before sunrise, and lasted till about 9. . . . After a little time the exciting part began and the congregation took the service into their own hands, enjoying themselves hugely. One began a chant which they all took up, beating time with their long sort of shepherd’s crooks which every Abyssinian carries, and coming down with a bang every now and then on the floor. Various cymbals, like rattles more or less, were handed round, and for a time they were used to mark the time. . . . The priest inside then had his innings again, but was once more taken up by one of the congregation, who was very bad and kept on forgetting his words and was jeered at and prompted by the members of the congregation. . . . I had had quite enough . . . and was very glad to get back to breakfast at 9:30, quite worn out. (7 February 1916)

The Obstructionist

  • Yesterday after saying he had no objections to leveling, he [the Likamakwas, Yasu-designated leader of the Abyssinian mission assigned to work with the Pearson group] suddenly stopped [our] work. I repeated some of my arguments, showing him letters pointing out clearly that it was all done with the approval of the Emperor; but as it was of no avail, I said that he and I must at once go to Gondar on the telephone, and ordered my tent to be pulled down, and left him. In a very few minutes this worked, as I thought it would, and he called me and begged me to do everything I wanted except the mapping. The sight of the tent coming down was too much and the comedy by was much enjoyed by our escort and servants. (11 February 1916)
  • Here we are hung up once more. Rather ridiculously, but it is impossible to argue with the Abyssinian crowd, who really appear to have instructions to oppose us at every step – though actually I think the Emperor did mean us to get through the work we came to do. Since we started just on three months ago, we have had twenty-eight days standing still. . . . it is a very difficult show to run without loss of dignity; and the Egyptian Engineer, Buckley, is a man who wants managing. . . . In his ordinary conversation his manner is most unfortunate even with Thomson [the doctor] and me; who from the tone of his voice, he like the Abyssinians appears to think bloody fools. I have at length had to stop him speaking altogether at meetings, as it is obvious his dictatorial manner is most objectionable to the Abyssinian crowd. . . . Thomson and I shoot snipe every evening after tea. . . . Buckley for some reason prefers to go out alone and shoot sitting guinea fowl. . . . We have been practically living on game for weeks, but it was very nice to get some beef today. Curiously enough there are no sheep except in the mountains, and we have sent to buy two or three. Coffee of course is the principal thing grown here, but I was surprised to find that there is also a certain amount of cotton. (28 February 1916)
  • I don’t know what has happened [regarding the mail] this week, and the Abyssinian mission suggest brigands, and have sent out to make enquiries. Two days away we crossed over from the territory of one king to that of another, and it is in the border that these brigands abound. They murder on one side and nip over to the other where they cannot be followed. The bait is rifles, of course. Our postmen insisted on having them, but I think they would be much safer without them. . . . The head of the mission is an extremely unpleasant and stupid man, and though I don’t really mind how much he obstructs us, as we shall always get the better of him, what I do mind is his poisoning the minds of the inhabitants against us. (2 March 1916)
  • People-to-People Time
  • The Abyssinian Mission have put down their foot and stopped the mapping of the river here, on account of a telegram from the Emperor, in which he says that we have only permission to map the lake. The [division between the] beginning of the river and end of the lake is not easy to define; . . . in the meantime we have had the humiliation of having our [marking] flags removed and the work of the last fortnight nullified. . . . So here I remain idle – it may be for a month, as the Emperor is a long way out of reach of the telegraph or telephone. This being forced to wait here of course annoys them intensely and I can’t yet say how it will end. . . . It is really rather a game of skill against each other. By opposing us they let me stay here and enable the local inhabitants to get to know and trust the Englishmen, exactly the way we want them to do, so it may all be well in the end, and Thomson and I will simply spend our time in visiting the villages, tending the sick, playing with the children and giving them presents in return for the eggs, tomatoes, etc., which we are besieged with every morning. . . . It is a very pleasant climate and we have hosts of friends among the people who crowd round our camp in the mornings and all day – particularly the young ladies, who really are extremely pretty, not a bit shy, and quite charming. One little girl, “Terro,” about 8 or 10 years old, I found sweeping out my tent after breakfast this morning, and she announced that she was coming back to Khartoum with me. All this extreme popularity of course also annoys the big guns of the Abyssinian mission, who by their oppression have made themselves loathed and feared by the local inhabitants. (6 March 1916)
  • We are having a desperately irritating time here, and with difficulty manage to keep our tempers. It is perfectly damnable; everything might have been so jolly if only they had not sent this wretched man along in charge of the mission. . . . He tried to frighten us that the local opposition was so strong he feared some act of violence; this unfortunately at the time Thomson was attending sixty patients daily; our camp, which is a mile and a half from his, was thronged with men, women and children; and I had visited – quite unarmed and without escort and only an interpreter – a village 5 miles off and been cordially welcomed. (11 March 1916)
  • Our difficulties here tend to increase rather than decrease, and I feel rather like President Wilson – wondering how much I can put up with, without loss of prestige. (30 March 1916)
  • We had excellent letters from Thesiger [British minister] . . . from Addis Ababa two days ago; and from his dispatches we got much kudos for the tact and patience we have shown. . . . Everything is going first-class now though – for the moment – while the head of the Abyssinian mission, our bete noire, is away. (6 April 1916)

Reception by the Ras

  • Quite suddenly Thomson and I changed our plans and came up here [Dankaz] at a day’s notice at the invitation of Ras Waldo Georgis, the king of this part of the world and uncle of the late Emperor Menelik. He has chosen a truly wonderful place to build his palace – on a plateau some six or eight miles square I suppose, surrounded by precipices on every side and over 9000 feet above sea level. . . We are over 3000 feet above the lake. The road is bad and I am sorry to say two of my transport animals fell over on the way up, one being killed, the second held up a hundred feet down by a projecting tree. . . . At the top we were met by an escort of 100 men with full band of trumpets, long brass horns and flutes made of bamboo. My own kit had gone down the khudd [ravine], so we could not visit the Ras in the afternoon; but at 9.45 the next morning a similar escort was sent and we made a dignified procession towards the little eminence in the middle of the plateau on which the palace and enclosure stands. No such sight of course had been seen before and my scarlet tunic and medals, I am told, made a great impression. . . . In the afternoon, we went by special invitation to the wedding feast of the daughter of one of his chief officers. . . . We had a nice lot of things with us and chose some beautiful silks as our presents, and had the honour of being introduced to the bride, a little mite of about 12 or 13, who screamed with terror when brought forward, as apparently she thought the bridegroom had come. . . . Thomson and I sat in the middle at a small table and were served with what was supposed to be European food and was not all bad, but we were surrounded by between 800 and a thousand people, who after a commencement of bread . . . had as piece de resistance simply raw meat. It is of course the luxury of Abyssinia. Eight bulls had been killed for this occasion and the attendants came round holding the meat up like in a butcher’s shop while the people, who had been served our with curved knives, fingered the long strips and sawed into it and put it straight into their mouths. (30 April 1916)

Addis Ababa, 1917

Reaching Djibouti

  • I am writing from the bottom of the Red Sea and expect to arrive at Jibuti tomorrow night. It is a dreadful place, people say, fearfully hot, dirty, and swarming with mosquitoes; but I don’t suppose I shall be more than a day or two there. (28 March 1917)

Meeting the New Empress

  • I called yesterday morning on French, Italian and Russian Legations, and in the afternoon we gave the Empress [Zauditu] her presents, going down in Khaki uniform and getting absolutely soaked on the way. We first saw the Regent, Ras Taffari, an effeminate-looking man of 24 or so, who was much interested in me as the newcomer; of course he knew I had been to Tsana. He asked my age, etc., and I hear afterwards said “What a dear old gentleman, but how absurd of him to say he is only 44. He must be at least 56.” The little Empress was huddled up on a kind of throne, with her face below the nose entirely covered up. She was as gracious as she could be, I am told, and liked our presents; but she is not a person of very much quality or consequence. The wife of the Regent, Ras Taffari, whom we see probably on Saturday, is a very different person and one can talk to her as to a European. (5 April 1917)

The Royal Treatment

  • We have just returned from the most weirdly barbaric ceremony you could imagine, on the occasion of the investiture of the G.C.M.G. [Grand Cordon of Saints Michael and George] on the Regent, Ras Taffari. The Prime Minister [Bituaded Haile Giorgis] and two other principal officers of state came to the Legation with several hundred warriors to escort me to the palace. Coach horns, bugles, etc. supplied the music. We were all of course in full dress – scarlet tunic, etc. – and the procession made the most wonderful kaleidoscope of colour imaginable. At the front there were a hundred or two ordinary soldiers in white with their rifles and swords; then three mounted officers in gold-embroidered coats of blue, red, green with lion mane near their shoulders and headdress, and silver and gold ornaments hanging over their foreheads. . . . then about double the number of the others in pure white sheepskins; then ourselves: Thesiger in his blue and gold diplomatic kit, . . . myself of course in scarlet, . . . the three Ministers in gorgeous robes heavily studded with gold of various hues and lion mane headdresses heavily studded with diamonds and precious stones and shields . . . . Behind us immediately, our six Sikh escort from India with pennons flying. . . . The palace was nearly two miles off which one must do at a walk, and [we] then climbed up through courtyards crowded like hives of all sorts, men with leopard skins on, and lion headdresses, and many thousands of common soldiers in white, with barbaric music rendering the confusion such that it is quite indescribable. . . . We dismounted outside the throne room, put the G.C.M.G. jewel, collar, and belt on a cloth of gold cushion, and Thesiger and I and the rest entered together, bowed to the throne, and Thesiger made his little speech and clasped on the jewel, etc. (6 April 1917)
  • Dinners in Addis Ababa are unknown; firstly because the roads are practically impossible in the dark, and secondly because the bullets go flying about all over the place at night and it is quite unsafe outside the Legation. They are always killing each other, and would have no scruples whatever in killing one of us if we happened to come up while a quarrel was going on. It is rather quaint. . . . Living for eight years amid such surroundings, Mrs. Thesiger says, makes you put the value of life altogether in a different level to what one is accustomed to give it in England. (11 April 1917)

A Matter of Style

  • Thesiger is rather too much, I think, the British Minister; and his visits in the nature of things are far more formal than mine would be, which I should joke and laugh with them, and generally let them know me a little more as a Sudan officer. Zaphiro, the interpreter, says that my appearance in scarlet and cocked hat and my white hair has already had some effect and they are inclined to like me! . . . They have bestowed on . . . me the second class of the Order [Grand Cordon of the Star of Ethiopia] with badly-made silver gilt star I wear round my neck with green, yellow and red ribbons, and another star which I plaster on to my left tummie . . . They have also given me a general’s robe, with sword, shield and two spears; but not the lion headdress, which I am trying to buy to complete the kit; and Taffari, the Regent and heir apparent, has sent me a signed portrait – to “his dear friend, Colonel Pearson”! All interesting things to have. [Pearson had been elevated to colonel for the period of this visit.] (11 April 1917)

The Regent’s Family

  • I paid a delightful visit with both the Thesigers and their three boys [the three oldest of four boys] to Waizeroo Manan, the Regent’s wife, to see the lions fed, of which she has eight. It was all very informal and we saw the son and heir [Asfa Wossen] and a little girl of four or so [Tenagne Work]. Manan was married and had her first child when she was 11! She can’t remember how many children she has had but she thinks she has had five husbands. She really was most entertaining. She gave us champagne and biscuits and came half way with us to see the lions fed. (20 April 1917)
  • The Abyssinians of course have a veneer of civilization and they have an innate politeness of their own, but are really in many ways yet very primitive. . . . They still practice mutilation – cutting off the hands of thieves, etc. The big tree in the center of the market is the usual hanging place and you never quite know when you may not see a body hanging there, where it is left for a week or more for the birds to pick clean. (28 April 1917)

No Dam Enthusiasm

  • The petty chiefs had certainly believed that we had come to buy the lake, and their opposition and the opposition of Negus Waldo Giorgis for the time being made any further move inadvisable. He expressed the opinion that we should only gain our ends by gradually familiarizing the local inhabitants with the British, gaining their confidence little by little, and letting them see that we respected their interests. He advocated visits of merchants, honest dealings, and possibly later on another mission. . . . On the 9th April, Mr. Thesiger presented Ras Taffari with a silver gilt coffee set and tray, and an album bearing the Abyssinian arms, containing photographs taken by Mr. Buckley during the recent expedition to Lake Tsana. After an inspection of the photographs Mr. Thesiger explained the Lake Tsana scheme. . . Ras Taffari . . . asked for a copy of the Treaty and maps and said that he himself knew nothing about the matter. {This appears to be the end of the effort to build a dam.] (Report of 17 April 1917)
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