||IN THE WINTRY DAYS OF 1962 in southern Michigan after I had received word from the Peace Corps that they wanted me to teach in Ethiopia, I went into the library of Western Michigan University to find out where in the hell Ethiopia was. What I knew about the Empire could be summed up in one word, Mussolini.
On the college library shelf I pulled down a thick copy of the James E. Baum book Unknown Ethiopia: New Light on Darkest Abyssinia. (Let me correct my above assertion I knew two things about Ethiopia; I also knew Ethiopia was gonce called Abyssinia.) I dont remember if I read any of Baums book that afternoon. But I do remember the photos.
I was unnerved by those small, grainy black-and-white photos of Abyssinian Types, villagers with jugs, humped cattle of Gojjam, Ras Hailus bodyguard, the Simien escarpment. They showed an extremely primitive and remote country. At the time, months before I would leave for Peace Corps training at Georgetown University, I wanted new and recent photographs of Ethiopia: street scenes, buildings, secondary schools and students. I wanted to try and see myself there in Abyssinia, the unknown Ethiopia.
I must have slipped the book with the thick, large-font type and orange jacket book back on its shelf and turned elsewhere for newer accounts of the Empire. After all, Unknown Ethiopia had been published in 1935, and it was a reprint of Savage Abyssinia, first published in 1927. Both editions were published by J.H. Sears & Company years before I was born.
Only recently, after all these years, did I rediscover that book in a collection of Ethiopian stuff my wife had stacked away in the darkest corners of our attic. Actually, I discovered I had two copies of Unknown Ethiopia, and I have no recollection of how they came into my possession. I do know I never read the book.
Nevertheless, in that cramped attic, I sat down and read the opening line of the Preface:
Louis Agassiz Fuertes of Cornell University and I had conceived the idea of an expedition to Abyssinia for the purpose of collecting museum specimens; mammals and birds.
Now, how could I have possibly resisted reading a book that began with such lofty prose and might ambition?
Now in my sixties I have developed a serious, if sentimental, recollection of my time in Ethiopia, and I look back fondly at those years, that mountainous land, and our experience there before the Empire was racked with famine, riots, and the Red and White Terrors that led to the end of the Empire, the creation of Eritrea, and the political ambitions of various ethnic groups who follow their kinsmen first, their nation second.
It is almost possible to overlay news accounts of what has happened in Ethiopia since the Emperors death onto the description of Baums travel to Abyssinia in 1927 and make a perfect match. Then as now it is a land of Rases, whether or not todays leaders claim that title in the political correctness of our times. It is, also, still a land of rough terrain, rare mammals, and a deep distrust of faranjoch.
Baums book is not about politics though, as we know, one can hardly escape politics in Ethiopia. Baum and his party of curators simply wanted to extracts rare specimens from the remote regions of the Empire and leave the Horn of Africa. Nevertheless, in giving his account of the Abyssinia hunt, Baum does provide vivid portraits of the Ethiopian dynasty in the 1920s Ras Tafari (Emperor Haile Selassie), as well as several other pretenders to the throne.
The expeditionary team
James E. Baum went to Abyssinia to kill rare animals that would be brought back to America to fill the African dioramas in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. They were looking particularly for two animals: the mountain nyala (tragelephus buxtgoniensis) in southern Ethiopia, and the Walia Ibex (capra walia) in northern Ethiopia's high Simien Mountains.
In the opening chapter of the book, he lists the other American participants and their roles in the expedition:
Dr.Wilfred H. Osgood, who was in command, had been on previous expeditions to South America, Alaska, and Central America. He was one of Americas preeminent scholars in the study of mammals, and with a special interest in the geography of South American mammals. At the time, he was curator of mammals of the Field. He would be the historian of the expedition.
- Louis Agassiz Fuertes was in charge of the ornithological part.
- Alfred M. Bailey, new to Chicago and from the Denver Natural History Museum, came along at Osgoods suggestion.
- C. Suydam Cutting of New York, who is described by Baum as a sportsman and at one time court tennis champion, volunteered to make a moving picture record of the journey.
The whole Ethiopian trip was underwritten by the Chicago Daily News. (This was not an uncommon practice by newspapers. Stanleys trip in 1871 to find David Livingstone was commissioned by the New York Herald.) Baum cabled regular reports to Chicago that were serialized in the paper about what was officially called the "Chicago Daily News-Field Museum Expedition to Abyssinia in 192627."
James Edwin Baum
James Edwin Baum, the author, was one of those wonderful characters that the American west always seems to produce. Born in Nebraska, Baum ran away from home at the age of 14. He rode freight trains to Wyoming where he worked as a horse wrangler, then went to Princeton University but dropped out to become a reporter in Omaha. Later he became the hunting and fishing columnist for the Chicago Daily News. It was during this period that he and Louis Agassiz Fuertes planned the expedition to Abyssinia. After the Ethiopian expedition, Baum would write several other books (Spears in the Sun, 1931, and Adventures of Gilead Skaggs, 1959) and spent most of his life writing, traveling, and big-game hunting in Africa, Alaska, and Persia.
Louis Agassiz Fuertese
The most famous of the principle figures on this expedition was Louis Agassiz Fuertese, Americas most notable ornithological painter since Audubon. In 1930, the Field Museum published an Album of Abyssinian Birds and Mammals* that he painted while in Ethiopia. The text was written by W.H. Osgood, and the publication was paid for by C. Suydam Cutting.
C. Suydam Cutting
C. Suydam Cutting, a wealthy American naturalist, later became better known as the man responsible for introducing the Lhasa Apso [dog] into the United States. In 1925, in search of wildlife specimens for museums, he traveled to Tibet with Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of the president, where he was presented with two of the little dogs by the 13th Dalai Lama.
In his Preface, Baum thanks Ras Tafari (Haile Selassie) then Regent saying, without [his help] the expedition could never have traveled ten miles outside the capital. He also thanks Colonel D.A. Sandford who, to strangers in a strange country, was as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. (Early PCVs in Addis Ababa might remember Sandford and his wife. They were famous in Addis Ababa for having lived most of their lives in the Empire, and being pillars of the Church of England.) Baum also thanks another Englishman, Charles F. Rey, of London, who had lived in Addis Ababa for four years and was a friend of Ras Tafari, and was back on a visit when the expedition group arrived in country. Baum writes, Mr. Rey is the only living man who has made a complete study of the Amharic language, Abyssinian history and ethnology.
Babur tabia yet no?
The book opens with a summary of historical Abyssinia, several thousand years summed up in several thousand words, and then moves quickly to their arrival in Addis Ababa. All of these adventure books and travel journals of Ethiopia from the days before any of us landed there by plane in 1962, open with the trip by train up from Dire Dawa and the arrival in Addis Ababa. It had taken the Baum party a month of continuous travel to reach the Empire. Arriving at the babur tabia, Baum writes, . . . we pulled into the station at Addis Ababa, the capital of Abyssinia; barbaric feudal kingdom of African highlanders.
And so it would begin.
Baum and his party spent seven months in Ethiopia, traveled some two thousand miles by mule and camel caravan, and collected over thirty-eight hundred specimens of birds and small mammals.
Leaving Ethiopia, they went west to Gallabat on the Sudanese border, then onto Khartoum.
While the whole journey was taken under the protection of Ras Tafari, and they were in possession of letters from local chiefs, they were also subject to hostile customs officials, and were continually on the watch for shiftas.
Nevertheless, in the seven months, they were never attacked, nor in any actual danger from Ethiopians beyond the precarious situations that they put themselves in while going after game. The hardship the party suffered was the terrain, from the lowlands of the Wabbi Shebeli to the cliffs of the Simien highlands.
Into the provinces
Baum is at his best in describing the landscape and the hunts. Here is his description of Tichu forest in Arrusi province:
Never, anywhere, had we seen such trees except in paintings. Giant cedars, perhaps a thousand years old, straight as lances reared heads a hundred feet, some with gnarly trunks twisted grotesquely, and all of immense size, thirty or forty feet around the base; hoary and moss-hung. Wild olive, low but spreading to great width were scattered here and there through the forest. Strange, blossoming trees grew thickly in the ravines, making those deeper parts almost jungle-like. And between the larger trees the ground was carpeted with thick grass, knee high.
Later in the book, and their journey, he is in the heights of Simien with a collection of fearless Simien scouts, particularly a man name Tichanu. Of him, Baum writes: He was tireless and the most fearless man Ive ever seen on the ragged edge of sheer space.
Baums writing in this chapter is particularly dramatic and engaging. He has developed a deep respect for the tall, silent mountaineers who became his scouts and guides in the quest for ibex upon the stupendous heights of that dizzy terrain.
The men would kill a dozen Walia ibex in seven days hunting in the peaks, often at heights of thirteen and fourteen thousand feet. None of the collecting would have been possible without the Simien scouts. They were, the finest hunters we had met in Abyssinia, or anywhere in the world, for that matter; keen of eye, absolutely fearless upon the ledges and tireless. Up and down they forged ahead all day, bareheaded beneath the tropic sun, barefooted upon the sharp lava, silent, alert and with marvelous judgment in the selections of routes over dangerous country.
When the final big male ibex needed for the museum group is killed massive, wrinkled, long, and showing signs of great age, the hunt is over, and Baum, Bailey and Cutting break camp, leave the mountains, and set off on the long march to the Sudan border. On the western shore of Lake Tsana they meet up with Osgood and Fuertes who had been on their own hunt in Gojjam. Together, the faranjosh headed for the Sudan and home.
The 35 edition
This 1935 edition, with its new, less offensive title, Unknown Ethiopia, has an additional chapter written a decade after the expedition. I presume that the reissue of this book was due to the looming invasion of the Empire by Mussolini.
This final chapter is a quick summary of the political chess game being played out in the Horn and is written while the future of the Empire, and the world as a whole, is still being decided by European powers. Hilter and Mussolini are poised to seize land, anyones land, and Baum expresses an interest in the outcome, but no need to intervene, which was the political and public sentiment of America at the time.
Baum reminds readers of the coronation of Haile Selassie, You read, no doubt, of this magnificent barbaric spectacle in every newspaper and magazine of the time. But unlike readers who might have seen it as an affair of sound and fury signifying nothing Baum called it an extremely clever diplomatic move on the part of Haile Selassie. By prevailing upon the great Powers to send an exalted personage to his coronation, the colonizing Powers where obligated just a little more than before in their promises to preserve the freedom of this particular small nation.
While having been impressed by Haile Selassie when he was Regent and as Emperor, Baum is not optimistic that Ethiopia will survive any invasion.
The character of the Abyssinian warriors however is against this. Their undoubted individual dash and courage, a deplorable and misplaced confidence in the crude weapons they have always used, their ignorance of modern warfare and of machine-guns, airplanes, gas and tanks, added to the proud memory of Meneliks victory over the Italians in 1896, I fear will be their undoing . . . . In that case, of course, Italy will soon possess a new colony and Abyssinia, Ethiopia, the ancient stronghold of Balkis, Queen of Sheba, will be no more.
In the short run, Baum was right. Ethiopia did fall to Italy. But in the long view of the country, he was wrong, as most westerners have been proven to be about Ethiopia, whether hunting tragelephus buxtgoniensis or capra walia or not.
NOTE: The Field Museum on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago still has extensive holdings on all aspects of that Abyssinian expedition, from the zoological and ethnographic specimens collected, to archival records, field notes, newspaper clippings, photographs, the C.S. Cutting film of the expedition, and the 113 original pencil and watercolor zoological field studies by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. If your interest merits, you are welcome to visit the Library and examine some or all of this fascinating material. Contact: Benjamin W. Williams, Head Librarian of the Field Museum.
John Coyne is the editor of PeaceCorpsWriters.org and co-founder of the new Third Goal Initiative, the Peace Corps Fund.