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Travelers' Accounts of Ethiopia and Kenya

African History, Richard Reid, University of Asmara

a review of two books:

Ethiopia through Russian Eyes: Country in Transition, 1896-1898. by Alexander Bulatovich. Edited and translated by Richard Seltzer. Lawrenceville, N.J., and Asmara, Eritrea: The Red Sea Press. 2000. xi + 420 pp. ISBN 1-56902-117-1

Over Land and Sea: Memoir of an Austrian Rear Admiral's Life in Europe and Africa
, 1857-1909. by Ludwig Ritter von Hohnel. Edited by Ronald E. Coons, Pascal James Imperato and J. Winthrop Aldrich. New York: Holmes and Meier, 2000. p. xxvi +358. ISBN 0-8419-1390-0.

These two books have been, in publishing terms, a long time coming. Ludwig Ritter von Hohnel, whose memoirs deal with a varied and itinerant career stretching between the 1870s and the First World War, committed his narrative to paper in the course of the 1920s in the hope of generating some much-needed income: only now, almost sixty years after his death, has he found a publisher, not to mention a team of editors. Similarly, Alexander Bulatovich's descriptions of travel in Ethiopia during the 1890s had long been available only to readers of Russian. It has finally been translated into English by Richard Seltzer, who also adds some editorial notation. The main interest of these works to readers of this journal lies in von Hohnel's expeditions to Kenya in 1886-9 and 1892-4, as well as his later diplomatic mission to Ethiopia in 190-5; and in Bulatovich's attachment to Menelik's army and exploration of large parts of southern Ethiopia in the years following the emperor's victory at Adwa.

Anyone who reads travelers' accounts, either for pleasure or as primary source material, will be aware that the value of such texts varies widely, even after one makes the customary allowance for the racial and cultural prejudice of the time. ... [comments on Over Land and Sea omitted here].

Bulatovich's text is altogether a different affair. A Russian cavalry officer, Alexander Bulatovich was in Ethiopia first with the Medical Detachment of the Russian Red Cross and then as official envoy to Menelik's court, in which capacity he traveled with the Ethiopian army to the south. The text itself actually comprises two books -- the first dealing with an expedition in central and southern Ethiopia in 1896-7, the second with his attachment to Menelik's army in southwestern Ethiopia in 1897-8. These were originally published separately, but have now been brought together in a single volume -- an an extraordinarily rich one at that. Bulatovich's narrative combines scientific clarity with obvious, but never undisciplined, passion; he has much to say about politics, religion, the army, the economy and countless other aspects of 'Abyssinian' life at the end of the nineteenth century.

His observations of the peoples on the receiving end of Ethiopian expansionism, especially to the west and south, are as sympathetic and as free form the prejudices of the day as one can hope to find, while his witness to the nature of that expansionism is invaluable. His attention to detail -- form political relations, to personal histories, to trade and prices, to terrain -- recalls that of his near-contemporary slightly further south, Emin Pasha.

This is, in sum, an exciting addition to the body of primary sources available to western historians and anthropologists dealing with the Ethiopian region in the late nineteenth century, though hardly 'new' to Russian scholars; Red Sea Press is to be commended for bringing it to the attention of a new generation. This reviewer's only serious complaints relate to the lack of maps, which would have been a helpful visual guide to Bulatovich's often pioneering movements; and to the slightly confusing editorial style. There are in fact three sets of footnotes, namely those of Bulatovich himself, of the translator Seltzer, and of Professor Isidor Katsnelson, who produced annotated editions of the original texts in Moscow in 1971. Considerable concentration is required to follow and assess the cross-references. Yet these are relatively minor criticisms, for the translated text is strong enough to stand virtually unaided, and Bulatovich is thus able, at last, to speak for himself to a new and wider audience, which can only benefit as a result.

From Entotto to the River Baro
With the Armies of Menelik II


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