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Casimir Mondon-Vidailhet, pionnier de l'amitié franco-éthiopienne / Pioneer of the French-Ethiopian friendship (1847-1910)

Alain Rouaud

Casimir Mondon-Vidailhet. Pioneer of the French-Ethiopian Friendship


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A cadet from Gascony

1Mondon-Vidailhet was born in Comminges, at Saint-Gaudens, capital of Nebouzan, on 1st February 1847. He was called François, Marie, Casimir. His father, Jean Mondon-Vidailhet, was the headmaster of a boarding school and his mother, Marie Paulandré, was a regrattière when she got married, which means she had a retail and second hand trade. Married in 1838, the couple had already two sons. A fourth son and then a daughter were to come.

2The name itself "Mondon-Vidailhet" with or without a hyphen, deserves a short explanation. In the valleys of Aure and Larboust, where the ancestries of the family were, a tradition was for the husband to add to his own name his wife's name if she was an only daughter, in order to avoid the extinguishing of her patronymic. This was the case of Jean Vidailhet as he married in 1772 a Miss Mondon. If Casimir Mondon-Vidailhet was to accept all his life to be called only "Mondon" - he thus signed some of his works -, he also proudly insisted on "Vidailhet". He sometimes signed by hand "Mondon-V.".

3The secondary school his father had founded towards 1835 had a good regional reputation seeing that children came to study there from all over Comminges, from Couserans, from the valley of Aran and even from Andorra. The necessity of teaching his own children, as well as success, mainly because his pupils often passed the baccalauréat (Α-Level), made him open primary classes where Casimir earned his spurs.

4Within this institution there was a rule which had been revolutionary for a long time in French schools: pupils who spoke the "local idiom" were not punished. So the affection of the child for his language was not thwarted and his nascent fondness for other languages could blossom. He spoke therefore Gascon and French. He liked Latin and ancient Greek. He learned modern Greek by himself. He studied Italian with a retired old captain and Spanish with his father. To familiarize himself with the practice of these two languages, he regularly met, says his brother Stanislas, migrant workers from Genova, Piedmont, Catalonia, Aragon etc. who were Saint-Gaudinois by choice.

5He became enthusiastic also about history and geography, making periodical borrowings from the bookcases of the captain and of his father. His interest for Ethiopia would have started there, the day he discovered a copy of Bruce's travels among books of history and travelogues he liked so much. Or, how to become an Ethiopianist"... He [Casimir] spoke voluntarily of the difficulty he had one day to take out of the paternal bookcase some enormous volumes which almost made him fall: They contained the relation of James Bruce's travels in Abyssinia". According to the journalist A. Brisson, he was under ten.

6His father also knew how to interest him in the French popular literature of the Middle-Ages, which was not part of the official school syllabus yet. He learned to play some musical instruments as well.

7The durable qualities Casimir had in the study of these disciplines were: a sound intelligence, a sharp and eclectic curiosity served by "a phenomenal memory of the spirit but not of the letter of things". He remembered everything, with the exception of fables and catechism, according to Stanislas, who wants maybe to hint that, for Casimir these two literary genres were similar? He didn't develop a liking for exact sciences which "plunged him into perplexity and disheartened him". In these specialties, he strove only to reach the standard necessary for the baccalauréat. In everyday life, he was not a playful child and he preferred to ask his aunts to read him stories rather than take part in his friends' games. These confidences of Stanislas make us understand that Casimir was what can be called a "literary person", with readings improving the mind, an intellectual and modest person. However, he would later become a little too full of his own knowledge.

8In 1862 when he was 15, the young Casimir was ready to sit for the baccalauréat but the rectorat of Toulouse refused to let him sit the exam on account of his being under age. It was apparently because his father was a reader of Le siècle! Casimir was annoyed and it rankled with him. "Nostalgia took hold of him" said Stanislas, and he planned to set off on a distant journey. His father who had just lost one of his sons did not take offence at this impulsive act and helped him financially.

The journey to the Orient

9With some money and letters of introduction, he boarded the Nil, owned by the Messageries impériales, in Marseilles at the end of 1863 or in 1864 bound for Beirut. This was the beginning of the adventure.

10He met on board Cypriot students going back to their country after having studied in France. They stirred him up for the cause of the independence of their country, so that he accepted to go with them to Larnaka to free the island from the Ottoman yoke... Fortunately for his future, this noble initiative misfired and Mondon went rapidly back to Beirut to restart a more classical journey to the Orient.

11He visited Tripoli and then joined an attorney from Angers to cross Egypt. Alexandria, Cairo and also Aswan, which he reached by boat, were the stops of a three-month journey in the valley of the Nile. He left Egypt for Jaffa and went then to Jerusalem "almost as much a pilgrim as a tourist". On his way back he stopped over at Smyrne, then Greece where he spent a long time, and Spain.

12To postpone the return to Saint-Gaudens, he lingered at Gerona where he gave a lecture in Catalan. So great was his success that it may have been rumoured "from Mercadal's square to the Cathedral that a French man had been a Catalan orator".

13But the journey had lasted for about three years and his father was getting more and more impatient to see his son back at home since he wanted him to take over the school. Casimir went back to Saint-Gaudens but without any intention of accepting.

14Because he had no occupation, he started to learn German with a teacher from Würtemberger and also English on his own. He could speak English but never German. "I have had only one language teacher, he said, it was for German. Strange result: it is the only language I have never succeeded in speaking". As he would say later, he wanted to be considered as a perfect autodidact. Maybe it was also a way of settling accounts with the education authorities in Toulouse who had not let him sit the baccalauréat.

15Nevertheless, he sat for the baccalauréat in 1866 or 1867 and passed it. His father again started to wish that his son would accept to run his institution, when he received from Paris a letter from a friend of Casimir's who asked him to let Casimir go to the capital and even undertook to find some work for him in journalism, in which he was himself brilliant... It was in fact a stratagem of Casimir to go to Paris. Neither totally fooled nor fully aware, his father accepted.

16Casimir went to Paris. This was the year of the World Fair, 1867. He was 20. There was of course no work at all and for a few weeks he led a Bohemian life and may have lived in extreme poverty. "All doors were closed to this shy young man who was not much to look at and had a deplorable local brogue", Brisson wrote, and he could only have got the information from Mondon himself. He consoled himself with the study of languages (maybe already Amharic) and with playing the violin (Beethoven). One day a newspaper (but which?) finally accepted him.

17The youth of Mondon-Vidailhet was not short of anything: the hesitations of his teenage years, the initiatory journey to the Orient, the move to Paris, the complicity with a friend, the Bohemian life, journalism and soon politics. Only women were missing. But even if Stanilas knew anything about them, would he have said so?

The publicist

18Le Petit Figaro appointed him as subeditor, thanks to a certain Lacaze, the secretary of Mr H. de Villemessant, the director of these two newspapers. His collaboration was not unclouded: at the time the regime was liberal and the republican opposition was strong. Influenced maybe by his father's political opinions, Mondon-Vidailhet was a republican and most probably a free thinker. His director knew his political opinions and tolerated them. Some incidents occurred anyway.

19The articles he gave to Le Petit Figaro were often in contradiction with the ones published by his colleagues at Le Figaro on the same subject. For example, the report he wrote about the demonstration on November 2nd 1868 on the grave of the M. P. Baudin in Montmartre was out of tune with the newspaper articles in the same press group.

20More serious was the incident at the Opera for the inauguration of the Danse by Carpeaux, who was the favourite sculptor of Napoleon III. Mondon was about to air the poor opinion he had of it when he was suspected by his director of being a friend of the young vandal who had thrown bottles of ink at the statues... His vehement denial only delayed for a short time his resignation from Le Petit Figaro because of his increasingly determined commitment to the struggle against the Empire.

21The opportunity arose with the plebiscite organised by the Emperor in May 1870. His director may have said "You have to choose between the Republic and Le Figaro". And he may have answered "I choose Freedom!". After this heroic profession of faith... he threw himself into committee meetings, demonstrations and propaganda in Paris or in Saint-Gaudens where he went back from time to time. He also devoted time to his personal research undertaken at the Bibliothèque nationale.

22The war broke out on July 15th 1870 and on September 4th the Republic was proclaimed. Mondon was sounded out about a position in the prefectural administration. This offer was apparently - but without any proof - due to his political acquaintances, close or distant, with maybe Jules Ferry, Léon Gambetta, even Victor Hugo. But his acceptance "would have been in his view like a desertion" his brother said. He preferred to stay in Paris and join the Garde nationale. He served under it during the siege of the town. After the French surrender at the beginning of February 1871 he went to Bordeaux on some newspapers' behalf to follow the meetings of the newly-elected National Assembly.

23He was in Saint-Gaudens when the Commune started. He played no part in it contrary to what Brisson said. As he said himself he did not like "renters"... As soon as possible (maybe in June) he went back to Paris to carry on as before his work as a parliamentary journalist for which he had developed a liking. If this strict specialization did not leave much room for his leaning towards popular literature and story telling it did allow him to play a political role, albeit modest and indirect, by introducing him in the higher realms of politics. For nearly twenty years, from 1872 to 1891, he would attend assiduously the parliamentary sittings and we can suppose he established several and precious relations with politicians in power.

24Mondon contributed to several newspapers: Gil Blas, Le Parti National, L'événement and L'Estafette all with various political opinions but all republican. In the first two he was in charge of the political diary. In 1876, in addition, he was for one year the editor of Le Républicain du Tarn-et-Garonne in Montauban. As a publicist he had a reputation for being a meticulous, concise and clear editor. But he gave free rein to his imagination and his story teller's instinct in the serials given to Canigou, Journal de Prades et des Pyrénées Orientales.

25Concurrently he carried on with his research. The idea of ascertaining the origins of the French language which he first had when he was at secondary school preoccupied him constantly. He continued to be passionately interested in languages and the history of Ethiopia. But what made him be interested in Ethiopian studies? It may have been partly because of the company of J. Bruce and the journey to the valley of the Nile. During the British expedition against the Negus Tewodros (1868), Ethiopia had become temporarily one of the events covered by the French press. It was maybe in these circumstances that his interest, however vague or platonic, materialized.

26He was the kind of man able to understand that any knowledge of a people and its culture is necessarily linked with its language. As far back as 1877 and undoubtedly before he had started to learn Amharic, witness the fact that he was at the time able to supply the trader Léon Chefneux with a small lexicon of Amharic. Talking about the departure of Chefneux to Ethiopia in 1877 Le Roux said "Mr Chefneux said to me [...] the most valuable thing he took with him was a small lexicon, it would be more precise to say a list of Amharic words. This manuscript so precious in such circumstances had been given to him by a young philologist whose name would be linked up with Abyssinian matters, Mr Mondon".

27He also watched for the opportunity to go there. The vice-consulship of France in Massawa had been free since 1875. He applied for the job and was supported by his political friends and also by William Waddington, the then minister of Foreign Affairs. The position was however given to a certain Carbonnel.

French policy in the Red Sea

28This was the time of renewed colonial expansion. The left, with Jules Ferry, a red-hot imperialist, had stayed in power for almost three and half years over two periods of time (1880-1881, 1883-1885) and relaunched the colonial adventures. The Bardo treaty imposed on the Bey of Tunis in 1881 marked the beginning of the undertaking. Then the sovereigns of Annam, of Madagascar and of the Comoro Islands had to accept the French protectorate respectively in 1883, 1885 and 1886. This expansion in the Maghreb, East Africa and the Far East was concomitant with that of the other European powers, amongst them notably Great Britain and Italy. It put the Red Sea back in the middle of a maelstrom of political and economic interests. Meanwhile some international alliances were concluded. The Empires of Germany, Austria and Italy joined in the Triple Alliance (1882) and pushed France and Russia to become allies. The antagonism between the two coalitions had, of course, consequences for colonial matters: the first one, with the encouragement of England, supported the colonial initiatives of Italy, and the second one defended the independence of Ethiopia.

29To gain access in the best conditions access to its new possessions (easily accessible since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869) France needed a place where its ships could stop to refit and to take on coal, water and food, in short a strategic colony like Aden for the British. The journalists who approved of and supported the colonial policy of Jules Ferry - and Mondon-Vidailhet was one of them - thought it would be sufficient to make the occupation of Obock effective, a small settlement in the Tadjura Gulf France had bought from the local Afar chiefs in 1862 and then abandoned.

30The renewal of interest in Obock was first marked by the establishment of trade companies the best known of which was the Mesnier which built the indispensable coal warehouse. The next step was the military occupation carried out in 1884. The same year the new colony received a governor, Léonce Lagarde, who created a new capital in 1888 called Djibouti which would replace Obock in 1896.

31The French government laid claim also to Adulis Bay (Zula) further to the North but they had to be quick because the Italians already controlled Assab and were interested in the area as well. They coveted the important port of Massawa, the starting place of the main route to the northern part of the Ethiopian high plateaux. In February 1885 they took possession of it, disrupting the French projects.

32Any French reaction to this action was jeopardised by the political effects of the brush in Tonkin between French troops and the regular Chinese army in March. Exaggerated by the anticolonial French press, the matter provoked the fall of Jules Ferry in June and consequently a halt to French territorial expansion in the Red Sea.

33To the despair of the French colonial lobby the Italians kept on moving forward into Ethiopia. Opposed in the North by the Emperor Yohannes IV they tried to exert a preponderant influence on the ambitious Menelik, sovereign of the southern vassal kingdom of Choa, to make life difficult for Yohannes as much as to have him replaced.

34In 1889 Count Pietro Antonelli, the Italian representative, succeeded in concluding with Menelik the Ucciale treaty (Wetchalé) which confirmed the alliance between Italy and Choa. After Yohannes' death in 1889, Menelik acceded to the imperial throne and felt then strong enough to challenge this treaty. After having rejected the Italian interpretation which made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate, the Italian-Ethiopian dispute became increasingly acrimonious until the war of Adwa a few years later (1896).

35Italy considered the African coast of the Red Sea as its private property and was clearly and firmly against any kind of French presence in the Tadjura Gulf. The French and the Ethiopians were therefore in a position of objective allies. As for France, to protect the existence of the Obock-Djibouti colony meant logically to preserve the independence of the Ethiopian Empire. Aware of this fact Menelik made the first move himself by contacting France through Governor Lagarde and his Swiss adviser. He had written to President Carnot and had sent him two lions as a gift. Chefneux, who was very much liked by Menelik, ensured the delivery.

36In order to make this rapprochement more concrete, Paris decided to send a special delegation to Ethiopia, which had to make sure that the Emperor did not disapprove of French policy in the Red Sea as his neutral position during the reoccupation of Obock might have shown. It would also lay the foundations of a cooperation between France and Ethiopia if the Emperor meant to do so. He would finally receive the Grand Sash of the Legion of Honour.

37The delegation was formed in 1891 and a special correspondent of Le Temps ranked among its members: Casimir Mondon-Vidailhet.

© Centre français des études éthiopiennes, 1997

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